You are here

Russian Revolution and Donald Trump

Our reading diet these days is filled with anniversaries and scandals. This year, bookstores are being invaded by an army of new books related to the centenary of the Russian Revolution. And on the scandal front, not a day seems to pass without a new disturbing, inflammatory indignity besmirching the Trump administration. Could the newly published books on the Bolshevik Revolution help us make sense of President Trump’s Russia-centered scandals? You might be surprised.

Many contemporary writings see the 1917 revolution as little more than a German plot. This view is particularly popular now in Russia itself, where “revolution” is considered a dirty word. People are rarely content to explain revolutions by using commonplace political logic. History’s changing events are interpreted as either something inevitable like the work of God or the intervention of a foreign power. And with Communism kaput, many of the popular histories of the Russian Revolution have now focused their attention from the rise of the masses toward espionage narratives that show how the Germans, as Winston Churchill put it, “transported Lenin in a sealed truck like a plague bacillus from Switzerland to Russia.”

Now, as many people see Mr. Trump’s election victory as little more than the effect of a Russian plot, if we understand why the Germans helped the Bolsheviks in 1917 and what happened after, we could get a better grasp on why Moscow might have been tempted to help the Trump campaign in 2016 and what we can expect next.

The 1917 analogy suggests that Russia intervened in American politics because of a Hillary Clinton they loathed rather than a Donald Trump they liked. For sure, the kaiser’s Germany had no sympathy for Vladimir Lenin’s revolutionary dreams. If the maverick Bolshevik had been German, the authorities would have tossed him in jail. But Lenin was Russian, and the German high command saw Russia’s revolution as helpful to Germany in the war. Likewise, it seems that Moscow’s main goal in 2016 was major disruption over all else. To unduly stress ideological or other links between the Kremlin and the American president would be misleading.

Russia’s history also teaches us that for a revolution-minded politician like Lenin, the real enemy is internal. In the way Germany saw the Bolsheviks as instruments for achieving German war aims, Lenin saw Germany as an instrument for achieving his revolution. Something similar is probably true for Mr. Trump. And although it’s unlikely that the president personally conspired with the Russians, he would probably not have objected to others exploiting Russia’s support to win. Mr. Trump’s only other priority aside from “America first” is “electoral victory first.”

This makes me believe that contrary to the fears of many of Mr. Trump’s critics, even if the president and his campaign knowingly or unwittingly collaborated with Moscow during the election, this in no way means the new administration will be friendly to Russia or controlled by it. Among other things, for the Russians to control Mr. Trump, the president would have to have his own degree of self-control — which he doesn’t. Paradoxically, Russia’s alleged interference in the American election in favor of Mr. Trump makes United States-Russia cooperation less likely. The White House’s fear of being perceived as soft on Moscow trumps its willingness to work with Russia. This may indeed become the hallmark of the administration’s foreign policy.

Democrats should especially learn another lesson from 1917 and give up on their impeachment dreams: Exposing Mr. Trump’s alleged Russian connection will not automatically delegitimize the president. The story of Lenin’s path to power via a sealed boxcar was well known to the Russian public — the provisional government even issued an arrest warrant for the leader of the Bolsheviks — but it was not enough to diminish him or the revolution in the eyes of his supporters. In an atmosphere of radical political polarization, leaders are trusted not for who they are but for who their enemies are. And in the eyes of many Republicans, President Trump may have the wrong character but he has the right enemies.

The story of 1917 may be instructive for President Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin as well. Germany’s strategy of helping the revolutionary forces in Russia to achieve German geopolitical goals happened to have an unhappy ending: Revolution in Russia removed the country from World War I, but it spread revolutionary fever all over Europe — and even brought civil war to Germany. Mr. Putin’s Russia faces a similar risk. A recent report by a Kremlin-friendly think tank devoted to the rise of technological populism suggests that the populist wave in vogue throughout Western democracies could soon reach Russia — and become a serious threat to the country’s political order during the next electoral cycle.

The irony of the current situation is that a century after the Bolshevik Revolution, Moscow risks repeating the same mistake Germany made in 1917: believing that revolutions can be a reliable ally in achieving geopolitical results. The point that Americans risk missing is that the current revolution in Washington cannot be simply explained by Russia’s meddling. It was first and foremost homemade.

Ivan Krastev