A Century of Revolutionary Change: 1917-2017

Speech to the Australasian Association for Communist and Post-Communist Studies

I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, the Ngunnawal people, and pay my respects to their elders past and present.

I want to thank Professor Amin Saikal for the honour, and rather daunting task, of addressing you. Most of you specialise in a range of subjects associated with the former Soviet Union and post-Soviet countries, in which I cannot profess any expertise. My own professional preoccupations when I was a foreign policy practitioner were India and the Middle East.

Speaking of elders and the ANU, there’s a figure I wish to acknowledge today. 

I want to mention Professor Harry Rigby, whose house on La Perouse street is in my electorate. Having graduated from Melbourne and London Universities, and served as an FCO research officer at the British Embassy in Moscow, Harry went on to become the founder of Russian studies at the ANU.

He set high standards of rigour – based on meticulous research of primary sources and a formidable knowledge of the Russian language and Russian history. I understand that two of Harry’s students are here today, Professor Amin Saikal and Professor Graeme Gill.

Harry belonged to a generation of outstanding ANU scholars who did much to establish the university’s name and reputation around the world. I came here from Melbourne to study, drawn by the reputations of scholars and teachers at this university, particularly in the politics department.

For many leading figures in the field of Soviet and Russian studies, the words “Australian National University” connoted, above all, Harry Rigby.

And I’m told that Harry was one of only a very few Australian scholars who rated an entry in the Great Soviet Encyclopaedia, which described him as a ‘bourgeois falsifier’.

I’ve heard he took this as a special compliment.

Your conference’s context is history.

History, it seems to me, is about continuities and discontinuities. It is about establishing what happened, what it meant and what it means. History may not always be a reliable guide, but it is the only one we have.

For a politician in a democratic society, someone elected to make laws and take decisions that affect their constituents’ lives and wellbeing, for me history is also about learning the lessons of it.

Presumably one of the lessons to be drawn from Russia in 1917 is that politicians need to recognise in good time the imperative for change and reform.

I’m no expert, but it seems to me that Russian history in particular is marked by deep discontinuities, upheavals and abrupt transitions from one set of rulers to another.

As I understand, your particular focus, given the anniversary year, is on the revolutions in Russia in 1917.

There were of course two, one in February that overthrew the Romanov monarchy and tried to install a parliamentary system of government; the second in October, a coup which overthrew the structures emerging from the first and imposed a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, that is, the domination of the Bolshevik party and a one-party state.

But history is also about myths, mistakes, misapprehensions and fictions.

To those we might now add ‘alternative facts’. 

Orwell famously wrote that ‘he who controls the past controls the future; he who controls the present controls the past’.

The present Russian Minister of Culture has written:

‘Any state whose elite does not seek to mould society’s consciousness, its historical memory, inevitably surrenders some of its sovereignty…because someone else will do so, and then people’s heads will contain either a vacuum or trash.’

Australia doesn’t have a Minister of Culture, but a Minister for the Arts.

However, we do have plenty of people with firm ideas about the history of our own country, how it should be written and taught, and what should be in the heads of Australians.

That said, it seems unlikely anyone will manage to impose a single monolithic interpretation.

A good example of an historical myth comes from someone I admire greatly – Professor Richard Rigby, Harry’s son and one of Australia’s most distinguished Sinologists.

Many of you would have heard the claim that when, in 1972, the then Chinese premier Zhou En Lai was asked about the influence of the French Revolution, he replied that it was ‘too early to say’.

The witticism is often taken as proof of a Chinese propensity to take a long view of history. The Chinese may have such a propensity, but I understand Zhou was in fact referring to the mass student demonstrations in Paris in 1968, not 1789.

But if it was too early in that instance, one hundred years on is not premature to consider the influence and effects of the events in Petrograd in 1917. For me, of most interest here are the effects in Australia, and in particular the effects on the evolution of politics in this country.

Almost certainly, one effect was a sharpening of the tensions between labour and capital.

Another was the foundation and growth of the Australian Communist Party.

The subject of the revolutions’ impact in Australia is vast. I’d like to mention just a few personal stories that illustrate the resounding and powerful effects on the lives of individual Australians.

The Australian War Memorial holds the service revolver of Captain Hugo Throssell, who was awarded a VC for action at Gallipoli. Throssell used that gun to shoot himself at his farm outside Perth in 1933. At the time his wife, the writer Katharine Susannah Pritchard, was in Soviet Russia, collecting material for a pamphlet entitled ‘The Real Russia’.

She was among a substantial group of Australians, including many notable women, who saw the Soviet Union as a beacon of hope for a better, more just, more equitable world.

As the road to a utopian socialist future.

Throssell’s suicide was probably the result of his failure in business, but it coincided with the Great Depression. In his wife’s eyes, and his son’s, an unjust capitalist social order was complicit in his death.

That son, Ric, would later join the precursor of the department of state that I joined in 1994, Foreign Affairs and Trade, serve in Moscow and become embroiled in one of the most significant events in Australian history, the so-called Petrov Affair.

Throssell was held in high regard by many. But whatever the rights and wrongs of his case, his life exemplified the drama and tragedy of the great ideological struggle that was powerfully driven by the Russian revolutions and their aftermath.

To the end of her days in 1969, Katherine Susannah remained a committed Communist, who supported loyally all Soviet policies and actions, including the suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968.

The former Soviet diplomat, V.V.Kuzmin, whose posting to the embassy here overlapped with the collapse of the Soviet Union, wrote in his memoirs:

“I recall with pleasure meetings with the leaders of the Australian Association for Communist Unity. Its founders, Pat Clancy and Stan Sharkey, were prominent figures in trade unions…Moscow staked heavily on the Association, in the hope that it would succeed in unifying left-wing forces in the country.

“Our loyal friends Bill and Freda Brown, the president of the Women’s International Democratic Federation, strongly supported the Association’s activities.  

“To this day I recall the dismay of our Australian friends over the collapse of the Soviet Union. They gazed at me in anguish, and posed questions to which answers were hard to find. In tears Freda Brown said: ‘can this really be the end of our long years of struggle for the happiness of ordinary working people? How sad, that I should have devoted my entire life to a great cause that is crumbling before our eyes”.

It is for historians to make the big judgements about the relative influence of particular figures and their ideas.

But it seems to me that these personal stories highlight the truism that the history of Australia cannot be understood without reference to the Russian revolutions, the ideas of Marx and Lenin, and in particular the rise of Stalin and his policies. In large part, this is a history of ideas traduced and hopes dashed.

The famous remark of a former Russian premier under Yeltsin comes to mind: ‘we all hoped for the very best, but in the end things turned out as they always do’.

One can well understand the note of resignation of that would-be Russian reformer.

But I for one would certainly not have gone into politics if I hadn’t believed that we can change things for the better. We need to, and we must, learn from history about what really matters.

My job is to try to contribute to the better governance of this country.

I won’t tell you what yours is, but helping us better understand history is surely part of it.

Let me wish you all the very best in your efforts to continue the tradition of rigorous study of history and its lessons for us all.

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