Revisiting the Russian Revolution

American President Donald J. Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin on a nesting doll at Souvenirs in Moscow. Photograph courtesy
As the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution approaches and America’s relationship with Russia commands the headlines, Seymour Topping looks at Russia’s troubled present and a scary moment in its recent past.

Written by Seymour Topping

There will be no centenary celebration in Russia for that historical 1917 event, which Russians have customarily hailed as the Great October Socialist Revolution.

The Czarist regime was then ousted and the way opened for the Leninist revolution and the establishment of a Communist government. Kremlin officials have told correspondents that the keystone event, which changed the world as well as Russia, would not be celebrated because there remained disagreement and division within the country about some of the turbulent consequences of the uprising. Analysts believe, however, that the decision to forego the much anticipated event was made by President Vladimir Putin because of his aversion to having crowds in the streets celebrating revolution as a means of overthrowing an unpopular ruler. With the Russian economy failing due to eroding demand for Russia-produced oil and the involvement in bloody wars in the Ukraine and Syria, Putin may have feared a lessening of his current high popularity rating. He resembles another Russian dictatorial leader, Nikita Khrushchev, in the tendency to undertake risky foreign policy adventures. But the two differ in how they viewed the Leninist revolution.

On Nov. 7, 1962, Khrushchev gave a large reception in the Kremlin for hundreds of Soviet officials and foreign diplomats to celebrate the 45th anniversary of Lenin’s Bolshevik Revolution. I was then The New York Times’ correspondent in Moscow, and, to my surprise, my wife, Audrey, then a freelance photographer, and I were invited to the reception. As it turned out, there was reason enough for the invitation, certainly more than the celebration of Lenin seizing power. Russia was then mired in the Cuban Missile Crisis and Moscow was a frightened city. At the reception, Khrushchev would tell me that the confrontation with the United States was at an end. 

In the gilded banquet hall of the Palace of Congresses, Khrushchev stood, vodka glass in hand, behind a long table with other members of the ruling Presidium. Suddenly, to my consternation, I saw Audrey sidle out of the throng of guests to a spot directly before the Russian leaders, take her Leica out of her evening bag and begin photographing Khrushchev. I observed KGB agents converging on her from every part of the hall.  Journalists had been required to check their cameras upon entering the hall, but Audrey had ignored the order. Unruffled by this blond apparition standing before him, Khrushchev waved off the KGB agents and posed smiling for Audrey. The photographs were destined to be published the next morning on the front page of The New York Times. When Khrushchev began to mingle with the guests, I approached him. He told me, as other correspondents gathered: “Tension has not yet completely eased, but our rockets are out of Cuba.”  Grimly, he added: “We were very close, very, very close to a thermonuclear war.”  During the night, the Russian leader had exchanged messages with President Kennedy.

As I spoke with Khrushchev, Audrey chatted with Nina, his wife, who stood nearby. Nina invited Audrey to tea and consented to her bringing a camera. The next afternoon, in a small reception room of the Kremlin, with a few wives of foreign ambassadors and members of the Presidium present, Audrey chatted over black tea and sweet cakes with Nina about our children and life in Moscow.         

The Cuban Missile Crisis thus ended, at least for the Toppings, with a tea party. 

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