This article was previously published on 8/8/17 in HuffPost.
Revolution necessitates talk of insurgency and transformation – this is not the most evident narrative with which state power should wish to engage. Yet elsewhere we can see lively discussion of the potentialities of history and possibilities for change that any discussion of 1917 should evoke. Impacts of the dual revolutions can give people much pause for thought – both in Russia and elsewhere.
The centenary of the October Revolution is nearly upon us, and with it comes a gamut of press comment, a score of scholarly assessments of varying degrees of originality, and much discussion on the blogosphere of what the events of that year mean for Russian and for world history. Some of these assessments, both from academic and lay audiences, hinge upon re-interpreting the significance of these events from ‘Western’ perspectives. These can include how the Russian Revolutions of 1917 interrupted the contemporary balance of power, what the revolutions meant for other great nations at the time, and what the revolutions can tell us, if anything, about Russia today.
What also needs to be considered are the distinctiveness of Russian responses to the revolutions of 1917. Certainly, this was a year of great significance for the entire world, with strong – indeed, transformative – influence on a variety of nations during the twentieth century. The transnational connections that shaped 1917 at the time as well as the discussions between between scholars and the public in different countries today are important for all sorts of reasons. Looking at the situation solely from a Russian perspective can throw a little light on such conversations. Briefly, I will consider what can be loosely seen as three groups: popular opinion, civil society, and an official interpretation.
Measuring popular attitudes to the revolution is no easy matter, and there is nothing close to unanimity of opinion on the subject. As Tony Barber has described in a recent article for the Financial Times, what data we do have shows that popular attitudes, so far as we can judge, are mixed. This is in contrast to other major events of the twentieth century, such as the Great Patriotic War, which have tended to generate more of a consensus down the years. Citing the Levada-Center, a Russian pollster, Barber pointed to a survey carried out in March this year among 1600 people from 137 localities within Russia. The Russians polled were split on the meta-historical questions posed by 1917, including whether the revolution was a good thing, the legality of the seizure of power, the inevitability of the revolution, and what its root causes were. Indeed, looking through the results in depth, the only trend was the lack of consensus amongst respondents. For example, 48 per cent considered that the October Revolution was inevitable, but 32 per cent saw that it could have been avoided. One could extrapolate on the basis of comparing the March 2017 results with those of past polls that attitudes are becoming more mixed: on the question of whether the October Revolution was historically inevitable, the number of respondents claiming it was ‘difficult to say’ crept up from 15 to 21 per cent from between March 2017 and when the question was posed in April 2006.
Turning to civil society, it is easy to find those for whom the revolution does generate significant interest. One of the most interesting contributions is Project 1917, a daily evolving social network based on primary documents that is designed to acquaint visitors with what happened on a certain day one hundred years ago. Unlike many resources available, Project 1917 does not project forward. The website is designed to provide a real time focus, exploring events as they unfolded at the time from a huge variety of perspectives: everyone from the main revolutionary actors such as Lenin and Trotsky, to liberals such as Petr Struve and Sergei Bulgakov, and foreign observers such as the British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour and German writer Thomas Mann. What Project 1917 manages to do successfully is to demonstrate the enormity of the number of people involved in the revolution, and the diversity of views on the panoply of events covered. Project 1917 is scrupulously maintained by a diverse team which includes journalists, historians, animators and illustrators, the great majority of whom are working within Russia. The website is generating a huge number of hits, millions of which are coming from within the Russian Federation. If there is a measure that 1917 continues to attract domestic attention, the care with which specialist resources are being constructed and their ability to engage the public are perhaps the best evidence of it.
Finally, what is the official stance towards 1917? Major media outlets are saying relatively little about 1917. Russia’s rulers have not traditionally been slow to grasp that major commemorations may have political uses, which makes the lack of activity marking the centenary of an event that changed the course of world history all the more conspicuous. In a break from his typical approach to pronouncement on historical matters, President Vladimir Putin has left such discussion to others. Looking to history the reasons for this are obvious. Revolutions aren’t just singular events: they pose a thorny and intractable problem about the stability of social and political orders. A mass revolution where power to the people was truly in evidence – if only for a short time – is a difficult topic. History is certainly a subject of serious interest to the current regime, but there is not one approach to interpreting the past that is currently predominating. Instead, what we have is something new that picks and chooses bits of both the imperial and Soviet pasts as desired, in the service of an ideology furthering the ends of resurgent Russian empire. It is in this context that both the official ideology of Russian conservatism and approaches to 1917 from on high need to be seen.
Revolution necessitates talk of insurgency and transformation – this is not the most evident narrative with which state power should wish to engage. Yet elsewhere we can see lively discussion of the potentialities of history and possibilities for change that any discussion of 1917 should evoke. Not only in this year, but in those to come the impacts of the dual revolutions can give people much pause for thought – both in Russia and elsewhere.
Dr George Gilbert is a Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Southampton and will be speaking at Chalke Valley History Festival for Schools about the 1917 Russian Revolution.