The baggage of history: Dublin commemorates Red October

Dublin City’s commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution has divided opinion. Zuzia Whelan finds out more.

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Dublin City’s commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution has divided opinion.  Zuzia Whelan finds out more.

“If a little nudge, from marking the Bolshevik Revolution reminds people of the role of people like James Connolly and James Larkin and the early trade union movement, for me that’s a good thing.”

— Cllr Dermot Lacey

 

Dublin City Council is to spend €30,000 of the 2017 Arts budget to commemorate the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution.

One hundred years ago in February 2017, the struggle of the Russian working classes came to a head, when the proletariat overthrew the imperialist ruling class.

In October of that year, the Bolsheviks came to power.

What followed was eight decades of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). It was supposed to be triumph of working people fighting for change.

However, it developed quickly into one of the most oppressive regimes in modern history.

The council funds will be spent on a series of public lectures, and promoting the records of the Communist Party of Ireland to researchers (CPI).

While we’re no strangers to revolution in this country, not everyone is happy with this decision.

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Factory delegation, Petrograd, April 1917. Image:  Wikimedia Commons

At loggerheads

Young Fine Gael are leading the opposition, and have written to Dublin City Councillors to voice their dissent.  

“We feel it gives State approval to an event that was far from beneficial for either Russia, Ireland, or the world at large,” says Killian Foley-Walsh of the group.

He adds that taxpayer money involved would be much more appropriately spent elsewhere.

A spokesperson for Dublin City Archives stressed that commemorations by the council never seek to celebrate an event, they just promote its educational value.

The commemoration is contentious nonetheless. For some it marks the struggle of the proletariat to overthrow an imperialist regime. For many others, it can not be unlinked from the slide into Soviet totalitarianism.

“We feel that history cannot be viewed selectively or in isolation,” says Foley-Walsh.

If Dublin City Council wishes to mark the struggle of workers against unfair conditions, there are a multitude of uses for the €30,000 […] that would help that, that would not celebrate the creation of the murderous Communist regime in the USSR,” he adds.

“People can always make the argument for money to be spent elsewhere,” says Dermot Lacey, Labour councillor for Dublin City.

“We do have important links with the Bolshevik Revolution, whether people like that or not is irrelevant.

The Soviet Union, as a country, was the first to recognise the independent Irish state, following the revolution,” says Cllr Lacey.  

Ireland is part of the European Community, and understanding how that community developed over the last century is part of our heritage.

“It is important that you understand your past and where you come from. In Ireland, history has been so distorted, so written by the winners.”

“The left has been virtually entirely written out of Irish history, so it’s important that we take that back to a certain extent.”

“And if a little nudge, from marking the Bolshevik Revolution reminds people of the role of people like James Connolly and James Larkin and the early trade union movement, for me that’s a good thing,” he adds.

 

“We feel that history cannot be viewed selectively or in isolation”

— Killian Foley-Walsh

 

 

Russia, Ireland and the revolution

“[The October commemoration] would be a recognition that the Bolshevik revolution that took place in 1917 was a world changing event,” says Eugene McCartan, Communist party of Ireland (CPI) Secretary.

McCartan believes that the “myth” of Soviet totalitarianism is only beginning to be dispelled.

The CPI has a long and colourful history in Dublin.

Founded in 1933, its main aim is to end capitalism, and bring in a socialist system where means of production, distribution and exchange are publicly owned.

Connolly Books, a store owned by the party, was burned down in the 1930s, and moved around the city as international tensions came to a head.

Today, it’s a part of Temple Bar, and the home of the New Theatre.

The history is not unrelated to our own; there were soviets set up in Limerick and Waterford City, which had their own police force and funds.

In 1918, the Dublin Trades Council organised a demonstration in support, and thousands marched through the streets of the city on the one-year anniversary of the October revolution.

 

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Connolly Books in Temple Bar. Image by The Communist Party of Ireland

‘History is history’

Cllr Lacey believes that the role of the left in Irish history has been “virtually entirely written out of Irish history, and that it’s important that we take that back.”

“I don’t like all of our history, and there’s aspects of Irish nationalism that I abhor, but history is history, and the real story should be told, and that’s what Dublin City Council is trying to do,” he says.

The commemoration is part of the Dublin City Libraries and Archives annual history and heritage programme. It aims to promote the collections to the public and researchers.

McCartan admits that very little archive material will be made available for public education, explaining that communists view the world looking forward, not back.

He is at odds with what he calls the “establishment history,” which he says is one-sided and bent on consolidating the old order.

The main event, according to McCartan, will be the public lectures, while researchers will be working on the archives.

The archives are being handed over to Dublin City Council on the understanding that they are unedited and unfiltered by anyone looking to downplay the role of the left, explains McCartan.

Most of the records dealing with the Bolshevik Revolution and Ireland were destroyed in the fires of the 1930s, leaving today’s historians to fill the gaps.

McCartan, like Cllr Lacey, believes that the left and the working classes have been left out of our history. He hopes that this upcoming commemoration will start a conversation about the role of working people.

 

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Eugene McCartan, in conversation at the New Theatre. Image by Zuzia Whelan

Contentious history

How do people react when they hear about the commemoration?

“It’s a big shock to them. Like a lot of things, the history of the USSR is contested, just as Irish history,” says McCartan.

“I as a working class communist, contest the version of history presented by the establishment. No establishment is going to present the development of socialism in a light that’s sympathetic.”

“The one [history] written about the Soviet Union is one of mass terror, blood and guts. I don’t think life was like that.”

“Like everything else you either get involved in these struggles to either get a different kind of world, and through that process things happen which you don’t necessarily wish would happen, but they do happen and that is life.”

— Eugene McCartan

“If that were the case, that twenty or thirty million people died in Russia, and another twenty or thirty died in World War Two fighting fascism, that would be a very difficult situation,” he says.

“It’s not documented. In most cases, in wars, civil wars, revolutions, the war against fascism, a lot of them would have been men. So, it would have been unable to reproduce itself so these are all questions you have to ask.”

“So the whole question of the famine, in the Ukraine, is not documented actually. It has to be challenged.”

“It depends who you speak to. If you speak to Ukrainian nationalists, they will tell you that millions of people died in the Ukraine. In actual fact that is very much disputed.”

It is true that the famine in Ukraine is disputed.

The Holodomor famine, literally “death by hunger,” was often not reported by western correspondents, in exchange for access to the Kremlin, according to a 2012 article in the Economist.

The Holodomor lasted between 1932 and 1933, and is estimated to have killed between three and seven million people.

“Since the archives have opened, a lot of these myths have been debunked by people like Roy Medvedev,” he adds.

Medvedev is a Russian historian who was active during the Soviet era, and was considered a party dissident under Stalin. He remains controversial today owing to his support of Vladimir Putin.

“He was critical of the situation, even his analysis was very different,” says McCartan of Medvedev.

Medvedev puts the death toll of the USSR at forty million people. Estimates of the total number killed can vary significantly. A figure of twenty million is generally accepted.

Other historians such as Norman Davies and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn suggest the death toll of the USSR was in the region of fifty to sixty million.

“In the Soviet Union, the reports of famine were greatly — that’s not to say people didn’t die. People did die. There was an intense political struggle, the USSR was surrounded.”

“It was invaded by sixteen foreign powers, so of course you have these political struggles taking place. Of course people get hurt in the middle of all this.”

“Like everything else you either get involved in these struggles to either get a different kind of world, and through that process things happen which you don’t necessarily wish would happen, but they do happen and that is life.”

McCartan hopes that if nothing else, the commemoration may reawaken that potential and idealism that things can be better, if people take their future in their own hands.

 

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May 1st, 1917, Petrograd. Image: The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Library.

Filling the gaps in history

According to the Dublin City Archives, the City Hall lectures this Autumn will “explore Ireland’s extensive links with the Russian Revolution.”

Though McCartan’s points are sometimes not entirely objective, his view that history offers a filtered account of the working classes is germane.

If the public lectures present an alternative story, one in which all Dubliners can see their reflections, that can only be positive.  

History is often written by the victors, and will continue to be rewritten.

McCartan’s views about the famine and deaths within USSR runs contrary to records of the time and survivor stories.

For anyone who believes that the commemoration is inappropriate, this could be a problem.

Conversely, Young Fine Gael’s stance is so reactionary, that the links between the revolution and Irish working class history are left unexplored.

Neither stance is perfect.

The commemoration will acknowledge a forgotten part of Irish and working class history.

However, if the CPI are to make a compelling case to the undecided, their view that the USSR was democratic, and that reports of famine and death were exaggerated, may need to be reconsidered.

The original ideals of the Bolshevik revolution, are perhaps not best reflected in what followed — purges, show trials, famine and political totalitarianism — and the adherence to the official party line, will not do the event any favours.

This October, when Dublin City marks the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution, there will be those who see gaps being filled, and roles being given to the unrepresented.

They will be joined by those who see the commemoration of a violent and tragic regime.

Ireland’s own history is divisive, so if we are to blend ours with that of another for a short while, perhaps it’s best to view the elements in isolation.

“We all carry baggage, some of it heavier than others.” — Eugene McCartan.

 

 

Feature image: The Bolshevik, by Boris Kustodiev. 

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