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When is an anniversary not an anniversary?

Russia is gearing up for the centennial of its October Revolution, and Ireland has just commemorated the centenary of its Easter Rising. Would their leaders recognise their countries today? Русский

The Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916 and the October Revolution in Russia in 1917 are alike in only two respects. Their similarities are linked to historical memory and the effect of these events on the countries’ experiences in the 20th century.

Easter – a national festival

Of course, the first similarity relates to the timing of the two revolutions and when they began to be commemorated. The Easter Rising, as the name suggests, took place at Easter 1916 and lasted for five days, from 24 to 29 April. This (tragically failed) armed attempt to bring an end to British rule in Ireland became a milestone in the historical consciousness of the Irish people throughout the 20th century and a key element in their nation building ever since.

The Easter Rising in some sense still defines the national and even cultural identity of the Irish today, which is why its anniversaries, and especially jubilee years, are so widely commemorated. This year, its 100th anniversary, the festivities were spectacular by comparison with the usual modest celebrations. There was a military parade, processions, flags and banners, crowds, political speeches, features in the papers (the famous Irish Times wrote about nothing else for a whole week), not to mention TV, radio and online publications and arguments on social media, all squeezed into the few days between Good Friday on 23 March and the end of Easter Week on 2 April. At first glance everything seemed right – it is, after all, the Easter Rising.

The Easter Rising in some sense still defines the national and even cultural identity of the Irish today

There’s something odd about it. The Republic of Ireland is a secular state, albeit with a strong Roman Catholic constituent. It follows a secular calendar, so what happened on 24-29 April should then surely be commemorated on these dates. But that is not the case. In 1948, when the Irish State acquired its present status, it was decided that the military parade to commemorate the Easter Rising should take place actually at Easter.

There are good reasons for this. This arrangement defined, and even to some extent re-established, the original symbolic meaning of the event. The rebels, as both their contemporaries and later commentators have noted, realised that they would probably fail in their goals. The uprising was more a question of sacrificing themselves (and others around them) in order to trigger a struggle for independence among the entire Irish population.

A protest in defence of preserving Dublin’s historic Moore Street, where Irish rebels surrendered to British forces. Photo (c): (c) Niall Carson / PA Wire / Press Association Images. All rights reserved. The rising itself was fairly localised and small scale – in Dublin it involved just over a thousand people – and the attitude to it of most Dubliners was cool, if not downright hostile. In the end it wasn’t the British that won – they suppressed the rebellion – but the revolutionaries. Persecution and executions played their part – the 14 rebel leaders who were shot immediately acquired the public status of martyrs; the surviving insurgents became heroes and the British authorities, executioners. All this despite the fact that official retribution was fairly limited, by the standards of the time: one could imagine what would have happened to the rebels in Germany or Russia, especially as this happened at the height of the First World War and the plotters received direct political and military support from the enemy.

There is of course a direct analogy with Christ’s martyrdom on the cross at the first Easter, which is why that date was chosen by the rebels for their uprising in the first place. So the anniversary of the Easter Rising, which is still always celebrated at Easter, whenever that falls in the secular calendar, is a confirmation of both the Christ-like status of its heroes and the justification of their ideological message.

The Invention of Ireland

The symbolic nature of the Irish Republic is also defined by the date of the celebrations. A new, independent Ireland was born after its death at the end of April 1916. It was in itself an incarnation of Christ’s Passion, a truly Christian country, because it imitated Christ in the act of its creation. This is a very important fact that would seem at odds with the secular nature of this state. But things are not as simple as they seem.

Let us not forget that the colonisation of the island of Ireland by the English (or more precisely the Anglo-Normans) began back in the second half of the 12th Century. The island may not have completely belonged to the English until the 17th century, but the local chieftains, while retaining their lands and property, still swore allegiance to the King.

In fact, “Ireland” as a unified independent state did not exist until the coming of the occupiers, so its nationhood, like that of India, was a product of the colonial period. This Irish identity required reinforcement, and Catholicism became the focus of this. Persecution of the Catholic Church by the English protestant establishment made it a synonym for “Irishness”. The concepts of “the true faith” and “the authentic Ireland” met in its bosom.

“Ireland” as a unified independent state did not exist until the coming of the occupiers

The second element in Ireland’s new identity as a national state was the Irish language and the culture, particularly the literary tradition, that had this language at its centre. The Irish language had been more or less banned by the country’s British rulers and by the second half of the 19th century it was in grave danger of dying out.

The leaders of the “Celtic Revival” of the late 19th and early 20th century were mostly concerned with the revival of their ancient tongue. The language question was a matter of social, political and ideological importance from the start.

Proud, independent Eire, not subjugated ”western Britain”. A poster from the Gaelic League. Photo CC: Frances Georgiana Chenevix Trench (aka Sadhbh Trinseach) / Wikimedia Commons / National Museum of Ireland. Some rights reserved.Patrick Pearse, the ideological leader of the Easter Rising and one of its 14 Republican martyrs, was a teacher, barrister, poet and writer, and an untiring promoter of the Irish language. But the guiding principle of fighting for his people – the same principle that inspired most nationalists in the late 19th and early 20 centuries - drove him to the barricades.

It was, however, only until 1918 that these people were seen (and are still seen) as heroes: after the First World War their (in fact completely unaltered) position became close to fascism. We only have to look at Radovan Karadžić, or today’s “protectors of the Russian language” in Ukraine.

So, to be Irish meant to be a Catholic and an Irish speaker; this is to some extent still true for many people in Ireland. Catholicism is therefore a means of national identification, rather as Orthodoxy is in Russia today. “Easter 1916” is not just an ordinary Christian festival; it’s a special “Irish Easter” where Christ’s Passion has become one with Republican passion.

This of course means that the church calendar has lost its general Christian character and become a National Calendar, so much more important than the usual universal, Western, secular one. The 1916 rebellion was the Easter Rising, not the April Rising, which makes it the Irish Rising and not just another event in the continuing process of the death of empires in the 20th century.

All calendars are inaccurate

One and a half years after Dublin’s Easter Rising, the October Revolution took place in Russia. Until fairly recently, the anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution was commemorated in the USSR – with infinitely more pomp than similar events were in Ireland – on 7 November. The October Revolution was celebrated in November.

And here the two revolutions, the Irish and the Russian, come together as examples of a chronological mess and the fact that this mess was in both cases the product of obvious cold ideological calculation.

Celebrating the second anniversary of the October revolution. 7 November 1919, Moscow. Photo CC: L.Y. Leonidov / Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.The formal logic of the Soviet anniversary date is clear: it took place on 25 October according to the “old” (Julian) calendar, which became 7 November in the “new”, Gregorian calendar, [adopted by the new Soviet regime in February 1918]. It may seem funny that a calendar that had existed since the 16th century should have been given the name “new“, but it was new for Russia. One could put Russia’s previous attachment to its own church calendar down to piety, love of tradition and so on, but in fact it was all much more pragmatic.

The calendar, like the Orthodox Church itself, became an element of Russian nationhood

After Peter the Great’s reforms, the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) became an arm of the state, so its calendar accordingly turned into an “Imperial Calendar” and lost any religious meaning. The calendar, like the ROC itself (headed by a “Chief Procurator”) became an element of Russian nationhood and, from the reign of Tsar Aleksandr III (1881-1894), who was keen to encourage Russian nationalism (which eventually led to the collapse of the Empire), this meant national-state identity.

The aspirations of the Irish republicans had therefore already been enshrined in Russian Imperial ideology. As Dostoevsky put it, “a Russian without orthodoxy is a piece of scum, not a human being.” The catch-all word used by Dostoevsky implied everything that was useless, bad, decrepit and worthless. In other words, a Russian who was not Orthodox was a useless, bad Russian who had broken away from the great national body and turned into dirt. It’s hard to imagine a more eloquent definition of a national identity forged out of the distortion of a religion founded on the idea of the universal and inclusive.

So the term “old calendar” tells us that Russia is an Empire, that the Empire is Orthodoxy and that being Russian and Orthodox is more or less the same thing. The October (in the “old calendar”) Revolution was a sign that all this specialness and national and religious exclusivity were at an end. The Bolsheviks weren’t after an uprising or even a coup d’état in one specific city or country. Their goal was a worldwide revolution that would rid humankind of exploitation, national borders and, not least, the strange aberration known as “religion”.

One of the steps taken towards the achievement of that that goal was the adoption of the universal, Gregorian calendar, which had no connection with a church and merely indicated membership of the human race in general. So it was decided to commemorate the anniversary of the October Revolution not in October (when it actually happened under the “old calendar”) but in November, that is, at a global level.

Lenin versus Pearce

The Easter Rising aimed to return the Irish people to their “own land”, their own identity as invented by the Celtic Revival and their own lives, separate from both the British Empire and the First World War.

The October Revolution was designed to “expose” the Russian and other peoples of the Russian Empire to the gaze of the planet, raise Russian history to a universal level – and give the entire human race an example of how to work together to eventually build a future full of happiness.

Post-Soviet Russian identity is defined by the very same factors as that of the Irish rebels in 1916

Both of these goals remained out of reach, but to a greater or lesser extent. Ireland was fortunate enough to become a European country, and not just “purely Irish”, although its path was rough and included a civil war, the creation of a strange bureaucratic-nationalist state, the long-term dominance of a single party, poverty and much more besides. The martyred heroes of the Easter Rising did not lay down their lives in vain – Ireland (well, most of it) did become independent, albeit in a form far from the one dreamed of by the revolutionaries.

The Russian Bolsheviks also appeared to be victorious, but not for long. To begin with, most of them were murdered in the 1930s by new people who replaced ideas of universal communism and social justice with the creation of a new, quasi-Russian Empire. They still venerated the ‘heroes of the revolution’, but that didn’t stop them individually erasing most of their names from the revolutionary canon.

The main change took place after 1991 and is, I suppose, still in progress. Rhetoric about universal justice and happiness is irrelevant to not only Russia’s current government but to its population, which finds the very idea loathsome.

In the first place, in the Russian public mind happiness should just exist “here”, and justice be even more selective – “for people like us”, and that depending on the situation and “in line with the accepted rules”. In the second place, post-Soviet Russian identity is defined by the very same factors as that of the Irish rebels in 1916: a perverse concept of religion (Orthodoxy) and a similarly odd perception of their own language and culture.

Vladimir Putin and leaders of “traditional” faiths stand together after laying flowers at Moscow’s monument to Minin and Pozharsky, 4 November 2012. Photo courtesy of Kremlin.ruTo today’s Russia, and, oddly enough, especially to today’s Russian Communists, the global Russian Communist project of 1917 is incomprehensible, alien and even dangerous.

On the other hand, however, we must be proud of our “great past”. And the October Revolution is probably the high point of that past – no other event that has ever happened in Russia has had such an impact worldwide. Apparently Lenin (though not that treacherous Jew Trotsky) is, with the odd caveat and grimace, our all, up there with the Tsar he murdered. They of course take second place to the great Stalin, who fits perfectly into our new concept of Russia’s great past and present; but to be fair, without Lenin we would have had no Stalin. So we should give Vladimir Ilyich his due and let him go in peace.

To today’s Russia, the global Russian Communist project of 1917 is incomprehensible, alien and even dangerous

This is the approximate framework Putin’s ideological minions are working within, as they rush around trying to maximise the impact of the forthcoming celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution (to take place in November 2017). I imagine they must be envying their Irish counterparts, whose problems were much easier to solve.

Postscript: a meeting of revolutions

In 1916 the themes of the two revolutions, the national and the universal, came together in an article written by Lenin as he sat out the war in neutral Switzerland.

This is what he wrote: “To believe that a social revolution is even thinkable without uprisings in small countries in the colonies and Europe; without revolutionary outbursts from some part of the lower middle classes with all their prejudices; without a movement of the unconscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses against multiple repression (land-owning, church, monarchist, nationalist and so on) – to believe that is to renounce social revolution. We need one force to line up on one side and say, ‘we’re for Socialism’ and another to line up on the other side and say, ‘we’re for Imperialism’, and that will be a social revolution!”

A hundred years later it has turned out quite differently, and not as Lenin would have wished – the ideals of the Russian government today are those that Patrick Pearce and his colleagues dreamed of. Such is the history of our times: today’s Hungarian crypto-fascists honour the memory of their national poet, the liberal revolutionary Sándor Petőfi (1823-1849) and not so long ago Pearce’s IRA admirers were getting up to things we would rather not remember. And, alas, there have been no social revolutions.

About the author

Kirill Kobrin is a writer, historian and journalist. He is an editor of the Russian intellectual journal Neprikosnovennyi zapas, and is the author of 20 books and numerous publications in the Russian, German and Latvian press. He lives in London.


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