Russia conflicted on how to mark 100 years since revolutions

Moscow (AFP) - It was the year that ended centuries of royal rule, brought two revolutions, ushered in Soviet domination and changed the course of Russian history irrevocably.

A century later, the country seems unsure how to treat the tumultuous events of 1917 that saw it hurtle from the abdication of the last tsar Nicholas II to a Communist dictatorship in a matter of months.

During seven decades of Soviet rule the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks was celebrated with pomp by the Kremlin and the tsarist regime was demonised.

But after the collapse of the USSR in 1991 there was a u-turn that saw the royal family canonised and public opinion increasingly view the upheavals not as a triumph but as a tragedy that sparked generations of bloodshed and suffering in Russia.

Now, over a quarter of a century after the Communist empire founded by Vladimir Lenin vanished, current leader Vladimir Putin appears to be performing a balancing act.

Some 500 conferences, round tables, exhibitions and art festivals are planned to mark the centenary -- but so far, at least, there are no signs that there will be any major fanfare.

"Russian society needs an objective, honest and profound analysis of these events," Putin said in a speech last year.

"The lessons of history are needed primarily for reconciliation, to strengthen society," he said, adding that it is "impermissible to let the splits, malice, resentment and bitterness of the past into our life today."

- 'Immunise' against revolts -

A former Soviet-era intelligence officer, Putin has turned himself into what many see as a kind of modern tsar and surrounded himself with a new super-wealthy elite.

His mantra has been restoring stability, strength and unity to the country after the upheaval that followed the end of the Soviet Union, and returning Russia to the conservative values of the past.

Following mass anti-Kremlin rallies in 2011-12 and the ouster of the Russian-backed leader of Ukraine by protesters in 2014, authorities have been increasingly wary of any popular revolt that could impact their grip on power.

And some analysts say the main aim of the authorities now is to use discussions of 1917 to warn against any uprisings.

"The centenary of the revolution will allow the Kremlin to immunise Russians against any form of revolts," sociologist Lev Gudkov, the head of the Levada Centre independent pollster, told AFP.

But while those at the top may want to downplay the revolutionary spirit of 1917, they also seem keen not to offend the considerable chunk of the population who pine for the Soviet past, especially ahead of a presidential election next year.

In rare comments on the Bolshevik leader, Putin has accused Lenin of putting an "atom bomb" under Russia's foundations that later exploded.

Yet he has also waxed nostalgic about the Soviet Union and famously described its collapse as "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe" of the twentieth century.

Under his rule the authorities have highlighted the glories of the Soviet period -- particularly victory in World War II -- as the Kremlin has sought to reassert some of its lost influence abroad.

Despite years of debate the embalmed body of Lenin remains in his mausoleum on Red Square and last year the Levada Centre found some 40 percent of Russians viewed his role positively, while just 20 percent saw him in a negative light.

In comparison some 21 percent said last month that the end of the monarchy was a disaster for Russia, while 13 percent called it a positive step.

- 'Contradictory' events -

Anatoly Torkunov is the man appointed to head the committee overseeing the official commemorations that Putin established last year.

The rector of the prestigious state-run MGIMO university is painstakingly balanced and insists the work of the committee -- made up of filmakers, journalists and Church leaders -- is not directed by the Kremlin.

He refuses to label 1917 as purely a tragedy for Russia, pointing out the revolution brought both bloodshed and modernisation.

While Torkunov concedes that the "controversial" events of 1917 still stir some passions, he says the issue is far less emotive than in the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse and there should now be room for more objective discussions.

"Before, this issue was very emotional, but now I want to believe that there is a bit more distance," Torkunov told AFP.

"There will be an attempt if not to reach some sort of basic consensus on the events of 100 years ago, at least to discuss what happened in Russia and what it means for us today."

But he admits that even a century may not be long enough to fully come to terms with the legacy of 1917.

"Many people are posing the question: 'Is it only 100 years or has it already been 100 years?'" he said.

"In historical terms, 100 years is still a relatively short period."