On October 13th, 2023, the Stockholm Institute of Transition Economics (SITE) and the Forum for Research on Media and Democracy in Eastern Europe (FROMDEE) hosted an academic conference on “Democratic Backsliding and Electoral Autocracies”. This brief provides a short summary of the keynote lecture and research presentations featured at the conference.
The most recent report by the V-Dem Institute concludes that “72 percent of the world’s population […] live in autocracies by 2022” and “the level of democracy enjoyed by the average global citizen in 2022 is down to 1986 levels” (V-Dem Institute, 2023). In Europe, these declines have manifested in the previous Polish government undermining judicial independence, in tightened political repression in Belarus, and most prominently in Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. But the rise of electoral autocracies and democratic backsliding are not confined to Europe – their strategies of propaganda, corruption, electoral manipulation, as well as attacks on judicial and media independence are a global phenomenon. The October 13th FROMDEE Conference gathered researchers from economics, law and political science to bring insight into why and where reversals are taking place, and what measures are needed to reverse the negative trend. This policy brief provides an overview of the research shared at the conference.
Populism and Autocracy – the Case of Russia
In the keynote lecture, Arturas Rozenas (New York University) focused on the roots of populism, challenging the common view of illiberal democracies as a mix between democracies and dictatorships. Rather, dictatorships evolve into populist dictatorships that then take one of two paths: either the path to democracy, or the path towards electoral autocracy, illiberal democracy, or totalitarianism. In this framework, populist dictatorships have historically made use of populist elements we recognize from modern times, i.e., democratic-seeming institutions misused for the ruler’s purposes.
In a populist dictatorship, Rozenas continued, there is a monopoly of power. Institutions such as elections and parliamentary representation, serve not to allocate power but to legitimise it. The transition from passive to active dictatorships coincided with a move away from the common notion of a king or similar leader deriving rightful power from God to rule the masses, to a reality built on the idea that the ruler’s legitimacy stems from the masses. This historic transformation should however not be interpreted as a transition to democracy. In fact, Rozenas showed that for most of recent history, the majority of elections and expansions of suffrage took place in dictatorships rather than in democracies. These seemingly populist institutions serve not only to legitimise governments, but also to coopt the population in a public display of the ruler’s strength. Rozenas argued, that in an active populist dictatorship, the ruler creates a setting which suppresses dissent and expectations of dissent, through institutionalised expressions of support (in the form of political participation, elections, large rallies etc.).
Turning to the Russian setting, the first thing to notice is the deep tradition of autocracy – from tsarism to Stalinism. In Russia, the words “society” and “the people” briefly blossomed during past revolutions or uprisings but have largely been absent in the Russian language and are once again on the decline under the rule of Putin. Further, the Russian population has time and again been exploited by its rulers during succession crises for displays of power and dominance. Examples of this are the mandatory elections held under Stalin two weeks after the invasion of the Baltic States in 1939 and more recently under Putin in the occupied territories of Luhansk and Donetsk in Ukraine in 2021. Such populist autocratic strategies are nothing new in Russia, concluded Rozenas – rather they derive from the internal logic of dictatorship that has played out throughout Russian history.
Continuing the notion of the “absent” Russian society, Olha Zadorozhna (Kozminski University) began her presentation by explaining that protests are infrequent in Russia and have surprisingly few attendees given the country’s large population. While there were mass protests in the run-up to the collapse of communism in the 1980’s and protests took place against corruption in 2017-2018, and in relation to the arrest of Alexey Navalny in 2021, protests in Russia are typically not motivated by an overarching ideology or broader political questions. Rallies in favor of authoritarianism and ethno-nationalism are a more common occurrence. Moreover, there are few indications that the invasion of Ukraine, sanctions and subsequent economic downturn have negatively affected the Russian population’s support for the regime. Still, literature has shown that war-related deaths can mobilize opposition against war participation (e.g., the U.S. participation in the Vietnam War). Considering this, Zadorozhna evaluates whether the deaths of Russian soldiers provoke a reaction among the Russian population. By combining social media data on fallen soldiers with protest activity for the first four months of the Russian invasion in 2022, the study find that casualties lead to an increase in protest activity, indicating that deaths can in fact mobilize public opposition in Russia.
Other populist strategies to ensure support for Putin in Russia relate to political participation and the judiciary. Nicholas James (University of Oxford) analysed electoral rule changes in the Russian Duma – from mixed member majoritarianism to proportional representation (PR) – by measuring their effect on floor participation. Applying a difference-in-differences framework, James found that deputies experiencing a change from PR included less words in their speeches following the switch (about 15-20 percent of an average speech). This effect should be understood in the political context of the ruling party’s (United Russia) increased influence during this time period (2010s). In fact, James concluded, the results point in the direction of the regime tampering with the Duma in an impromptu and reactionary manner with the overall goal of obtaining closer control and the appearance of support for the regime.
Yulia Khalikova’s (University of Hamburg) presentation gave further insight into how ostensibly democratic institutions can be exploited to make an authoritarian regime appear legitimate. In her work, Khalikova considers judicial references to international law that may be employed strategically, without necessarily adhering to the spirit or content of the law. Looking specifically at international law citations in 601 judgements made in the Russian Constitutional Court (RCC) between 2000 and 2021, Khalikova find evidence that the RCC has increasingly cited international courts when making judgements on topics related to politics and physical rights, indicating that state policy influences citation patterns. The change in citation patterns also points to the RCC currently using international law to support the regime and uphold its legitimacy, meaning that international law – adopted with the ambition of enhancing democratic values and ensuring human rights – is misused for undemocratic and repressive purposes.
Censorship and Propaganda
Information control is an important feature of autocratic regimes. Philine Widmer (ETH Zurich) considers the Chinese setting – where the regime controls the amount of foreign information available on the internet via a countrywide firewall. Research has shown that autocracies make use of censorship strategies to control their citizens, but these are associated with high reputational costs and can be overcome by tech-savvy citizens. Using a machine learning algorithm, Widmer first predicts a newspaper article’s alignment with the Chinese regime before comparing the placement of more/less aligned articles on news websites. Her results show that front-page news stories in Chinese newspapers are more aligned with the regime’s stance than other content. Front-page placement in turn matters for information uptake. Widmer ended the presentation by comparing the additional cost of finding less aligned articles to the technological costs required to access outside media (e.g. VPNs). For an autocracy to achieve its information control objectives, independent news may just need to be relatively harder to access. It does not need to make it impossible to access for all citizens.
Censorship is typically accompanied by, and complementary with, propaganda. Restricting other narratives allows autocratic regimes to spread their own. While propaganda is a common feature within autocracies, Jaakko Meriläinen’s (Stockholm School of Economics) presentation evaluated the effect of autocratic propaganda in a democratic setting.
Meriläinen’s study focuses on a rogue experiment in which some Finnish children in the 1970’s were taught history and social sciences using material from the Soviet Union – material which was in essence Soviet propaganda. By exploiting geographical and cohort variation, Meriläinen use a difference-in-differences approach to compare the 213 exposed children to children taught the regular Finnish curriculum. The long-term outcomes show that exposed children had lower incomes in adulthood, worked fewer months per year and were engaged in more left-leaning and publicly beneficial occupations (such as, nurses and firefighters).
Information and Accountability
The use of technological innovations to access otherwise restricted information was central to Arieda Muço’s (Central European University) presentation. She studies the spread of the Xerox photocopying machine in communist Hungary in the 1980’s – a setting characterised by limited freedom of speech and restrictions on the media. She reported that areas with early placement of Xerox machines are found to exhibit higher shares of pro-democratic voting. Muço ascribes these outcomes to the fact that the machines allowed for the spread of information and eased coordination of the opposition, suggesting that new technologies and information can act as key facilitators in the fall of autocratic regimes.
Providing citizens with information was also a key feature in Enrique Seira Bejarano’s (Michigan State University) presentation. He began by discussing two potentially related trends: in Latin America recent years have seen (i) increased levels of corruption and (ii) increased dissatisfaction with democracy among citizens. The number of corruption-related news articles have increased threefold in Spanish and doubled in English and the share of people perceiving corruption to be the greatest challenge to their country has doubled in the last decade. The study uses two empirical strategies to identify the effect of corruption on democratic values. Firstly, Seira Bejarano described an observational study, in which data on major corruption scandals were combined with Latinobarometer data on support for democracy. The authors find that corruption scandals increase corruption perceptions while decreasing stated support for democracy. Secondly, Seira Bejarano reported the results of a randomized controlled trial in which some respondents were shown videos of a politician accepting bribes. This had a negative effect on preferences for democracy and on trust more broadly. Both studies show that revelations of corruptions decrease the support for democracy, suggesting a potential tradeoff between the public’s belief in democratic institutions and increased transparency which is important for accountability but can also expose corruption.
Yet another threat to democracy is the rise of right-wing populism – currently a reality in many well-established democracies across Europe. In Germany, the far-right party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) enjoys around 21 percent of voters’ support according to recent polls. To understand their rise in popularity, Navid Sabet (Goethe University Frankfurt) builds on previous literature on cultural conflict as a driver for right-wing party support. The paper he presented examines the role of violent conflict in the form of terrorist acts. It evaluates whether acts of terror can alter the political landscape and shift support to the far-right. To avoid selection problems, the authors compare successful terror attacks to attacks that failed. Sabet reported that successful small-scale attacks (predominantly targeting migrants) increase AfD’s vote share by about 6 percentage points in state elections (in the time period 2013-2021). The acts of terror were found to increase voter turnout, by mobilizing otherwise idle voters, but also by gaining votes at the cost of other parties. Exploring the mechanisms behind these results, the authors study the language used by political parties and the way successful attacks were covered in the media. Relative to coverage of unsuccessful attacks, media coverage used a more negative tone, more words related to Islam and terror and fewer words related to right-wing populism. This suggests that media plays an important role in shaping the public’s response to acts of terror and that far right parties are able to exploit this dynamic.
The 2023 FROMDEE Conference brought together academics from different fields to shed light on some of the main challenges to democracy today. In part, the research presented supported the prevailing narrative that democracies are backsliding in many parts of the world. However, by analysing how autocracies and populist leaders operate, the presenters also highlighted the vulnerability of dictatorships.
Arturas Rozenas cited the example of a rally in Bucharest in 1989, which was organised to display support for Ceauşescu’s regime and descended into an anti-government protest. Dictatorships can benefit by coopting the populist elements of democracy but, in doing so, they risk creating a vehicle for genuine democratic expression.
The audience learned about autocracies’ efforts to control the flow of information but also about citizens’ ability to circumvent restrictions whether in 1980s Hungary or present-day China. Several presentations focused on the extent of autocratic control in Russia but even in this setting, the death of soldiers in Ukraine motivates citizens to participate in protests.
Recent trends suggest that democratic institutions should not be taken for granted in any country. Societies can become more resilient to the threat of democratic backsliding, in part by better understanding how both democracies and autocracies operate and what makes them vulnerable. Researchers around the world are using innovative methods to expand our knowledge in this area, as reflected in the presentations at the 2023 FROMDEE Conference.
- V-Dem Institute. (2023). Defiance in the Face of Autocratization. Democracy Report 2023. University of Gothenburg. Varieties of Democracy Institute (V-Dem Institute). https://www.v-dem.net/publications/democracy-reports/
Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in policy briefs and other publications are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the FREE Network and its research institutes.
The recently declassified proceedings of the Swedish Academy shed new light on why it awarded Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn the literature prize in 1970. His novels reflected unique experiences of many prisoners. The Academy characterized his work as a renewal of the great Russian literary tradition. On the other hand, Soviet authorities prohibited publication of his novels, however, they were widely circulated underground or published abroad. We now know that his novel In the First Circle as it was published in 1968 was only a shortened version that Solzhenitsyn had hoped would pass the censorship. The complete version, published recently in many languages, gives an even better inside picture of the Soviet state, its leaders and ordinary citizens, and thus strengthen the Academy’s motivations for the award.
The decisions by the Nobel prize committees are declassified after fifty years. Therefore, we recently got a better insight on the motivations by the Academy for giving the 1970 prize in literature to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The proceedings of the Academy add to what was known at the time, from leakages to the press and rumours by initiated persons. Remarkable Western journalists and scholars could describe the main events in the Soviet cultural life surrounding Solzhenitsyn and the Nobel prize. (Saraskina 2008; Scammell 1984). What has now been revealed from the Academy archives are the opinions of the Academy members and in particular the motivations in the propositions submitted in 1969–70 from entitled personalities.
The decision to award Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn the 1970 Nobel Prize in literature was preceded by his own struggle in the USSR to make his novels available to a wider public. In the last year of the Second World War, he was sentenced for allegedly subversive correspondence with another officer in the Red Army. Solzhenitsyn was sentenced to a long term in the camps. However, much of this time he spent in a special design bureau operated by MGB, the secret services’ so-called “sharashki”. After his release, Solzhenitsyn worked as teacher in a distant province. Here, he managed to write novels and short stories, based on what he had himself experienced or heard from other prisoners. He must, of course, keep his writings secret.
With the “thaw” under Nikita Khrushchev in the early 1960s, an opening was found for Solzhenitsyn to get his short story “A Day in the life of Ivan Denisovich” published in the renowned journal Novyi Mir. It seemed that he would then get his novels published; a contract was given for the novel The Cancer Ward (Rakovyi korpus). However, the literature climate changed as Khrushchev was ousted in 1964. The authorities stopped all plans to publish Solzhenitsyn’s works. In those days, there circulated many transcripts of unpublished works, in the so-called samizdat. It is even today an open question, for researchers, just how many hundreds or even thousands of readers throughout the Soviet Union were in those days familiar with literature that the censorship authorities would not allow to be printed.
These hardened attitudes of the Communist authorities only spurred Solzhenitsyn to have his works published abroad. He managed to organize a solid network for smuggling his manuscripts abroad, and to have responsible publishers contracted. In the late 1960s, The Cancer Ward – based on his observations during treatment in a Soviet hospital – and In the First Circle (V kruge pervom) – describing a design bureau where sentenced scientists were to develop high-technological equipment – were published in the USA and many countries in Europe.
His books were not only best-sellers, but highly esteemed by literary critics. Already in 1969, the Swedish Academy received applications from their authorized contributors, that the Nobel prize in literature be awarded to Solzhenitsyn. The Academy member and author Lars Gyllensten formulated a detailed analysis of Solzhenitsyn’s books. He emphasized Solzhenitsyn’s talent for psychologically pertinent portraits of a plethora of individuals in the most extreme conditions. However, in 1969, the Swedish Academy decided to award its literature prize to Samuel Beckett, as a dramatist with a much longer career. The next year, Francois Mauriac (Nobel laureate in 1952) jointly with a group of influential French authors formulated a proposition concerning Solzhenitsyn to the Academy. It had also received an anonymous Prize proposition written by a dozen members of the Soviet Union of Authors who emphasized the pathbreaking character of Solzhenitsyn’s novels. After deliberations within the Swedish academy, with only one dissenting member, it was announced that the 1970 prize in literature was awarded to Solzhenitsyn.
The Soviet authorities had a dilemma. In 1965, the appraised Soviet novelist Mikhail Sholokhov had received the prize in Stockholm and lectured here on his renowned novel And Quiet flows the Don (Tikhii Don). On the other hand, in 1958, the equally famous Boris Pasternak was nominated for his novel Doctor Zhivago. However, Pasternak was forced, under humiliating circumstances, to renounce the prize. The situation in 1970 for Solzhenitsyn thus presented several dilemmas. He rightly feared, as the nowadays available documents also confirm, that if he would go to the Nobel prize ceremony in Sweden, the Communist party leaders would most probably withdraw his citizenship and thus force him into exile. Consequently, he informed the Academy that he was honored and would accept the prize, but that he was not prepared to travel to Stockholm. Discussions with Swedish diplomats in Moscow concerned the alternative to arrange a ceremony at our embassy. Finally, this option was cancelled in 1971 when the chairman of the Swedish academy Karl Ragnar Gierow was denied a visa to the USSR.
Solzhenitsyn’s Later Path-breaking Contributions
In the meantime, Solzhenitsyn would continue his writing of the multi-volume historical novel The Red Wheel (Krasnoe Koleso) on the last period of Imperial Russia and his interpretation of the 1917 February revolution. He was also more engaged than before in publishing manifestoes and letters to the authorities, in a struggle against the oppressive regime. Much changed as more dissident voices in the Soviet Union manifested themselves in the early 1970s. A new landmark in Soviet literature would come in early 1974, with the publication of the first parts of The GULAG Archipelago. Although concerned Western readers had a vague notion of the Soviet camp system, Solzhenitsyn had managed to assemble hundreds of eye-witness stories from former prisoners that really shocked the public. In France and several other countries, the intellectual climate changed dramatically as The GULAG Archipelago made its imprint. In the 1980s, it was not yet possible to undertake serious historical research on the Soviet penitential, prison and camp system. Only with glasnost and Gorbachev’s perestroika was the seal on the secret archives opened and many of Solzhenitsyn’s originally earth-shaking revelations could be put into a solid factual framework. We now know who the more than two hundred personalities were who had sent Solzhenitsyn their stories in the early 1960s, as they had read his “Ivan Denisovich” short story. Solzhenitsyn’s guesswork, in the absence of statistics, concerning the economic significance of the GULAG camp system can instead be analyzed by the solid documentary collections from the archives (Jesipov 2018). A major contribution was made by the French historian Nicolas Werth and his colleagues, who jointly with archivists in Russia, assembled and wrote commentaries to the exhaustive, seven volumes Istoriia stalinskogo GULAGa. Solzhenitsyn’s original work undertaken under the direst possible circumstances stand out as pioneering. He could not even dream of having his manuscript fact-checked by experts, let alone read in wider circles. It deserves emphasis therefore that President Putin took the initiative to have an abridged version of The GULAG Archipelago edited for the Russian school. Solzhenitsyn’s widow, Natalia Dmitrovna accomplished this careful selection and added commentaries as necessary for young readers.
The 1970 Nobel Literature Prize Reconsidered in Hindsight
Finally, a reflection on how Swedish opinions on Solzhenitsyn has changed over time – from the enthusiastic reception in the 1960s of his novels to the skeptical attitude in the 1990s and early 2000s to Solzhenitsyn’s allegedly nationalistic worldview. It cannot enough be emphasized under how horrible circumstances he wrote classical contributions to world literature. To take only one example. If the Swedish Academy – hypothetically – had known the original version of The First Circle, and not only the abridged version published in the late 1960s, with its far less political implications, they could with even greater emphasis have nominated him for the Literature Prize. It demands a lot from contemporary readers to imagine how one man like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who even in his early age in the late 1930s dreamt of writing novels on the Russian revolution, after much suffering in the camps managed to vividly describe, in the novels here presented, the many-faceted Soviet system from inside its prisons, camps and deportation cities.
- Carlisle, Olga, Solzhenitsyn and the Secret Circle, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul 1978.
- Jesipov, Valerii, Kniga, obmanuvshaya mir: Ob “Arkhipelage GULAG” A. Solzhenitsyna nachistotu, Moscow: Letnii Sad, 2018; Swedish abbridged translation Boken som lurade världen: Om Aleksandr Solzjenitsyns GULAG-arkipelagen, Stockholm 2020.
- Ostrovskii, Aleksandr, Solzhenitsyn – Proshchanie s mifom, (Farewell to the Myth) Moscow: Jauza 2004.
- Samuelson, Lennart, ”Nya ingångar i Solzjenitsyns Nobelpris när sekretessen hävs”, Respons, 3/2021, http://tidskriftenrespons.se/artikel/nya-ingangar-i-solzjenitsyns-nobelpris-nar-sekretessen-havs/.
- Saraskina,:Liudmila, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Moscow: Molodaya Gvardija 2008;
- Saraskina, Liudmila (ed.), Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: Vzgliad iz XXI veka: materialy Mezhdunarodnoi nauchnoi konferentsii, posviashchennoi 100-letiiu so dnia rochdeniia, Moscow, Russkii Put, 2019.
Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in policy briefs and other publications are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the FREE Network and its research institutes.
The centennial of the 1917 revolution in Russia provide opportunities for the public to refresh knowledge of the tumultuous events that dramatically changed the country’s history. Conferences, television series and debates, exhibitions at historical and art museums are some of the activities that will illuminate the February and October revolutions in 1917. The complex, intertwined and contradictory historical process and the following tragic Civil war 1918 – 1922 calls for careful, objective and dispassionate approaches and evaluations.
Over the last years, Russia has officially sponsored or encouraged great historical commemorations, e.g. the bicentennial of the war against Napoleon in 1812 and the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. In contrast, this year’s commemoration of the 1917 revolution(s) in Russia – the first in February and the other in October (old style calendar) – pose a whole range of difficult questions. In the contemporary school curriculum in Russia, the most often used concept is ‘the Great 1917 Revolution in Russia’, thereby avoiding the previous, inappropriately counter posed February vs. October revolution. Instead, emphasis shifts to a continuous spectrum of revolutionary processes on different levels of the state and in various social groups throughout 1917. Likewise, this concept captures the multi-ethnic character of the revolution better than ‘the Russian revolution’.
In this brief, I outline the expected results from professional historians and archivists, by academic institutions and museums. In a forthcoming study of recent Russian historiographic debates (Samuelson, 2018), I intend to analyze also the changing official assessments of the 1917 revolutions.
In the Soviet era until the glasnost in the late 1980s, party-controlled historians described the ‘Great Socialist October revolution’ tendentiously, with many obfuscations and ‘white spots’. Not only were the opponents of the Bolsheviks depicted in caricature forms; also, the later oppositionists to Stalin’s party line were eliminated from the 1917 history, or mentioned merely for the alleged mistakes. In the West, on the other hand, there existed a plethora of interpretations of the Russian revolution, reflecting ideologies and worldviews of liberals, conservatives, as well as exiled Russian politicians (see e.g. Mazour, 1971 or Laqueur, 1967).
In the decades since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russian historians have profoundly enriched our knowledge of the 1917 revolutionary process as well as the ensuing Civil war. ‘Un-persons’ like Lev Trotsky, and hundreds of other who were expelled later from the Communist party, got back their due place in history. Works have been published of monarchists, liberals and socialists who led the Provisional governments during 1917. Historical studies by exiled scholars, as well as memoirs by politicians and diplomats that were once published in the West, have now been reprinted by Russian publishing companies (for the best survey, see Gennadyi Bordiugov, 2013 (1,520 pages!!)).
In today’s Russia, there co-exist an abundance of interpretations and assessments of the 1917 revolutions. The February strikes and uprising in Petrograd triggered the abdication of tsar Nikolay II, led to the founding of a republic and the formation of new government. The revolutionary changes outside the capital, throughout the whole empire, took quite different forms and only in recent years, regional scholars could describe them objectively.
Naturally, the fundamental changes in the political landscape in Russia after the return from exile of Vladimir Lenin in spring 1917 have attracted interest by scholars. Solid biographies of Lenin by Dmitrii Volgogonov (1994), Vladlen Loginov(2017), Anatolii Latyshev(1996) and Elena Kotelenets(2017), to mention only a few, give the Russian public a more nuanced figure than the more hagiographic works published in the Soviet epoch. The British historian Catherine Merridale (2016) gives a fascinating narrative of how Lenin’s return from exile in Switzerland would completely change the perspectives of the revolution. The renowned Russian specialist Vladimir Buldakov wrote profound reinterpretations of the ‘Red Troubled times’ (Krasnaya smuta) of 1917 in the first of a series of path-breaking research in the central and regional archives (Buldakov 2010, 2015).
As we approached the centennial of this decisive and deeply divisive year in Russia’s long history, many observers wondered how it was to be officially observed. Just like similar jubilee years, for example in 1989 of the French Revolution, it seemed obvious that this was not a time for triumphant celebrations as had been the case of the annual October Revolution holiday (on 7th November, new calendar) in the Soviet era. On the other hand, it would equally be unfortunate to pass over in silence this eventful revolutionary year. So by support from the Ministry of Culture, the Russian Historical Society (abbrev. RIO) set up a vast program of conferences, round tables, exhibitions and publications. Universities all over the Russian Federation will organize gatherings for historians and students. Central and regional archives arrange exhibitions, the explicit purpose of which is, not to give any definite value judgments, but to let the public form their own views on the personalities by pondering over original documents on Tsar Nikolai II and the tsarist family, the politicians of various parties, as well as on Lenin, Bolsheviks and others of the Left.
The call from the Russian political leaders has been to strive for a balanced, as dispassionate as possible, reassessment of the 1917 revolution in Russia. The ensuing civil war 1918–1922 created a generation-long, deep division among Russians, inside the country and in exile. Just as was the case in other countries, e.g. Finland and Spain, where civil wars scarred the national fabric in the 20th century, at present, the goal should be for reconciliation and mutual understanding of the historical actors on all sides of the political spectrum.
This spring, the Siberian branch of the Academy of Sciences in Novosibirsk organized a round-table on the 1917 revolution. Dozens of scholars presented their research findings and opinions on various events in the region; the protocol’s understatement that “the discussions had often a polemical character” indicate that the Russian revolution is still a subject of hot controversies, even in academic circles. On 29–31 March, the Moscow State University arranged the first of several grand international conferences planned this year. In twenty sessions, hundreds of scholars from all over Russia and from foreign countries gave papers on widely different aspects of the revolutionary processes. Likewise, universities in Samara, Volgograd, Cheliabinsk and other cities have announced their forthcoming conferences on the 1917 Revolution.
The main depository of political archives, RGASPI, in Moscow has contributed over 800 archival documents to a special exhibition, ‘1917. The Code of the Revolution’ at the Central Museum of Contemporary Political History. (https://www.sovrhistory.ru/events/exhibition/58becc2aa0e5981d9da515c4, accessed 31.03 2017). Two grand exhibitions projects with less-known archival documents attempt to give new perspectives, first, on Tsar Nikolai II, and, later this year, on Vladimir Lenin; both are of course well-known personalities, but the archivists and museums’ commissars hope to inspire visitors to renew their perspectives. In St. Petersburg, besides conferences, round-tables and exhibitions, there will be theatrical performances to reproduce dramatic events of 1917 and precisely on the streets and squares where they once upon a time took place. Russian Internet sites will provide pieces of contemporary news from 1917 for each day (https://project1917.com/).
Publishing houses have started new series devoted to the 1917 revolution in Russia, and the shelves in bookshops give abundant ‘food for thought’ for eager readers. Here one can find not only Trotsky’s own renowned History of the Russian Revolution written in his exile in the USSR. There are also memoirs by officers in the White Army during the Civil war, and a multitude of new popular-history works that reflect today’s ‘lessons of history’. The leading publishing company Rosspen will edit an archival documentary series, and compile an encyclopedia on the 1917 Revolution, thus hopefully summing up what has been accomplished in the former states of the USSR concerning the dramatic year of 1917 that was to profoundly change not only the country’s history, but even global history for many years ahead.
- Dmitrii Volkogonov, Lenin: A New Biography, New York, 1994;
- Vladlen Loginov, Lenin: How to become a leader, Glasgow 2017;
- Anatolii Latyshev, Rassekrechennyi Lenin (The declassified Lenin), Moscow 1996;
- Elena Kotelenets, Bitva za Lenina. Noveishie issledovaniia i diskussii (The Fight over Lenin: Recent research and discussions), Moscow 2017.
- Catherine Merridale, Lenin on the train (Swedish edition Lenins resa: Vägen till revolutionen 1917), London 2016.
- Vladimir Buldakov, Krasnaya smuta: Priroda i posledstviia revoljutsionnogo nasiliya (The Red Troubled Times: The nature and consequences of revolutionary violence), Moscow 2010;
- Vladimir Buldakov, Voina, porodivshaia revoliutsiiu (The War that brought along the revolution), Moscow 2015.
- Lennart Samuelson, Sovjetepoken i backspegeln.The Soviet Epoch in the Rear-view Mirror’, forthcoming in 2018
- Anatole G. Mazour, The Writing of History in the Soviet Union, Stanford: Hoover University Press, 1971;
- Walter Laqueur, The Fate of the Revolution: Interpretations of Soviet History from 1917 to the Present, London: Macmillan, 1967.
- Gennadyi Bordiugov (ed.), Mezhdu kanunami: Istoricheskie issledovaniia v Rossii za poslednie 25 let, Moscow: AIRO-XXI, 2013
The photograph to this policy brief shows Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin and other Russian exiles in Stockholm, 13 April 1917, on their way from Switzerland, to change the course of the Russian Revolution and world history of the 20th century. Social democrat Ture Nerman is talking with Lenin (4th from right, with umbrella).; behind them – mayor Carl Lindhagen and Aleksandra Kollontay, radical feminist who spent World War One here and in the 1930s to return to Stockholm as ambassador of the USSR.
Note: This Swedish photograph is in the public domain in Sweden because one of the following applies: (i) The work is non-artistic (journalistic, etc.) and has been created before 1969, (ii) The photographer is not known, and cannot be traced, and the work has been created before 1944.
The next Russian generation’s understanding of their country’s past may turn out to be more refined and complex than at present whether or not the current project of a single history-textbook and accompanying pedagogical materials are successful. Rather than imposing a new version of Stalin’s infamous ‘Short course’, as certain Western mass media predicts, the new history books will probably reflect even the most debated parts of Russia’s history from the 800s to the present, and in particular the turbulent 20th century.
Western mass media have a tendency to focus on Russian historical debates only when ‘spectacular’ and/or ‘scandalous’ events appear. For example, few news agencies paid any attention as to how the school textbooks on Russia’s contemporary history had changed through the 1990s. A whole year history classes were cancelled in the late glasnost period! This was because the Soviet-era teaching was recognized as totally outmoded in light of all the revelations on Stalinism. Starting in the mid-1990s, several groups of renowned historians produced new textbooks, history maps, and CD-ROM-materials for Russian general schools. In these pedagogical devices for children up to the final 11th class, few if any of the formerly ‘taboo questions’ remained unmentioned. By the early 2000s, a new historical landscape of Russia’s past – especially from the 1860s to the present – had appeared. Every history teacher had a number of handbooks to choose among. However, with time, it was obvious that not only did the basic ideological and political attitudes of the textbook writers influence how they presented a historical narrative. There was also a wide divergence in how even the basic facts on historical events were described.
History teaching in Russian schools has thus been highlighted in Western mass media only when a certain author has been criticized or a specific textbook lost its recommendation from the Russian Ministry of Education. Therefore, the understanding in the West, even in academic circles, of how the Russians in general have changed their perception of their country’s past is likely superficial. The obvious language barrier is only a first hindrance that explains this ignorance. The lack of knowledge of, and even an interest in, i) Russian professional historians, ii) popularizes and publicists in mass media, and iii) the general public as shown in social media describing epochs and events in the past, may also be related to a certain degree of Russophobia, traditionally present in the West.
Instead, the Western average reader tends to get his views on Russia’s Vergangenheitsbewältigung, that is its ‘coming to terms with the past’, from highly restricted analyses like Sherlock’s book (Sherlock 2007) or polemical surveys like Satter’s (Satter 2011). Sherlock investigates the glasnost debates, but ignores the changes in the 1990s and draws farfetched conclusions on the present Putin-period, based on statements by politicians. Satter concentrates on how certain leftist, pro-Stalinist opinions remain in the public sphere concerning history writing or history-memorialization with respect to the victims of state terror and repression. These two authors emphasize how politicians, rather than professional historians, have made statements, or sometimes suppressed commemorative actions on Russian history, thus creating a skewed image of how the past is analyzed in the historians’ community. In reality, there are few subjects, especially concerning the Stalinist period, that have not been investigated because of lack of sources and of non-access to archives. The remaining ‘white spots’ on the historical map concern matters that are likewise often state secrets in other states, such as military intelligence. Given how much was until 1991 classified in the archives, it is worthwhile pondering how much historians and archivists in Russia have already achieved.
The Russian professional historians’ achievements in the post-Soviet period can now be grasped easily in the solid 1,500 pages long volume, edited by one of Russia’s foremost historiographers Gennadii Bordiugov (Bordiugov 2013). Bordiugov and his colleagues have held numerous conferences since the mid-1990s where practically every new research project on all aspects of Russia’s 20th century history has been analyzed. These have been updated and collected into a massive volume. Another conference was devoted to the changing character of the historical community in general, to the research and teaching conditions in Russian universities, as well as to the interaction between historians and politicians (Bordiugov 2012). To a large extent, the economic history of Russia was until the late 1980s hampered by its rigid attachment to the Marxist and Leninist schemes of ’historical materialism’. Thus, starting during the glasnost era, Russian economic historians have made serious revisions, widespread re-interpretations and new research on practically all important stages of the evolution of the Tsarist economy, in particular concerning the early industrialization, the banking system and the entrepreneurial efforts in the 19th century. These achievements are well reflected in the two-volume encyclopedia on Russia’s economic history from oldest times till 1917, under the scientific guidance of academician and head of the Institute of Russian History of the Academy of Sciences, Iurii Petrov (Petrov 2008).
A new trend in the field is the outright proclaimed and implemented ‘history policy’ (in line with a state’s economic, social and foreign policy). Politicians strive to use their country’s past, its military feats or civilian achievements for their present purposes. This has been apparent in Russia as well as in Eastern and Western Europe, first in the wake of the collapse of the communist regimes, and then as a matter of geopolitical and socio-economic confrontation. The resolutions on 20th century history by the PACE, OSCE and other forums are examples of such history policy. Without doubt Russian publicists have also been involved in dreadful ‘wars of memory’ in particular vis-à-vis the Baltic states and Ukraine (see Borgiugov 2011b). However, among both Russian historians and certain politicians there exists a better grasp of the risks involved in history policy campaigns than seems to be the case in some East European countries. This is easily explicable, given the Russian state’s complicated thousand-year legacy of multi-cultural encounters, complex forms of conquest and expansion, social conflicts and revolutions, as well as religious and ideological controversies.
Thus, a striving towards a unified version of Russian history was reflected in the proposals by a commission set up in 2013 to formulate the ‘concept for a new, single textbook for schools on Russian history’. The initiative to substitute a multitude of textbook by a single one was set out in early 2013 in a directive from president Vladimir Putin. The original idea in Putin’s directive was to eliminate internal contradictions concerning historical events, and create a solid handbook in history with presumably straightforward, undisputable ‘facts’, just like the natural sciences can be said to have ‘a single knowledge framework’. Academicians Aleksandr Chubarian, Iurii Petrov, other historians as well as scholars from other disciplines plus politicians, led the commission. This initiative from Putin has been widely interpreted as a new stage in ‘history policy’ of the Russian government with the purpose of enforcing a new kind of patriotism or even legitimizing the allegedly ever more authoritarian present regime. However, when the concept for a single textbook was published in late autumn 2013, it became apparent that the commission had formulated a new academic, rather than a politicized framework for presenting Russia’s whole history, from the 800s to the present, with merely sketched outlines for each epoch, century of crucial decade. In over thirty appendices to the concept, leading experts describe major historical controversial questions, such as Ivan IV (‘The Terrible’), Vladimir Lenin and the 1917 Revolutions. Suffice it to mention that the appendix on the Great Terror 1937-1938 is written by Russia’s leading expert on Stalinism, professor Oleg Khlevniuk (see e.g. Khlevniuk 2008).
In early summer 2014, we can expect that the official announcement on the conditions for participation in the writing of the new textbook on Russia’s history will be announced. Just as for architectural contests, the mere presentation of a master-copy of the ‘pedagogical package’, i.e. not only the textbook but also guidelines for teachers, historical atlases, working notebooks with tasks for pupils, as well as audio and video materials will demand substantial investments from the participants’ side. Although the remuneration, in case of winning the contest, may be great, it is not expected that more than a few institutions or groups of historians will find the financial resources at hand. These proposed new textbooks will then be circulated and judged in a manner that remains to be determined.
The initial reactions in 2013 by Russian politicians and Western journalists at the appearance of the concept were skeptical. Concerns, however, were often somewhat biased. For example, in an article in ‘The Moscow Times’ the opposition politician Vladimir Ryzhkov had no objections on the first one thousand years of Russia’s history outlined in the concept. Instead, Ryzhkov lamented that the last paragraphs in the concept on Putin’s presidency had not mentioned certain oligarchs and recent dissenters. (Ryzhkov 2013). The American historian and specialist on Ukrainian history Mark van Hagen expressed his fears that Putin’s textbook would try to indoctrinate the Russian masses in a manner similar to how Stalin’s infamous ‘Short Course of the Bolshevik Party’s history’, but, of course, with a presumably new authoritarian, Orthodox Christian and multicultural Russian idea (quoted in Reuters. 2013).
It remains to be seen how much of such fears turn out to be prescient, or on the contrary, wide of the mark. Already at the official presentation in January 2014 of the commission’s result to president Putin, a number of changes in the original proposal for a single textbook were apparent. A careful reading of Putin’s speeches as well as those of Sergei Naryshkin, chairman of the Russian Historical Society and speaker of the Duma, and Academician Chubarian, scientific leader of the commission, indicate that the pedagogical package (i.e. the teacher’s handbook, textbook, map and task booklets, as well as CD-ROM and video) are likely to be much more pluralistic, as to interpreting history, than what either the initiators intended originally or what their critics presumed eventually.
Although the original idea formulated by the president himself included a phrase on giving the school children just ‘one single textbook’ (Russian: edinyi uchebnik) with new narrative, free of contradictions and contested interpretations, we can already see that even the announced concept for such a ‘single history textbook’ may well turn out to be as dynamic and thought-provoking as the real historical events were. Another alternative outcome that cannot be excluded, will be that not one single, but a few new textbooks – with different pedagogical and other highlights – will be declared as winners, provided that they reflect the new, more nuanced version of Russia’s history from oldest times to the present. In either case, these new pedagogical instruments are bound to reflect, given dozens of special surveys by experts on the debates among historians added to the concept, the achievements of archivists, professional historians and teachers in the past quarter-century. Thus, in conclusion, while substantial arguments may be raised against the political request of a single textbook on Russia’s history, the presentation of this new concept and the forthcoming contest may turn out to produce a number of excellent history teaching materials that in a wider sense will reflect both the professional historians’ achievements in recent decades, the publicists’ opinions and the expectations of the broad public.
- Bordiugov, Gennadii, editor (2011a), Nauchnoe soobshchestvo istorikov Rossii: 20 let peremen, (Russia’s scientific community of historians: 20 years of changes), Moscow: AIRO-XXI.
- Bordiugov, Gennadii (2011b), ‘Voiny pamjati’ na postsovetskom prostranstve (‘Memory wars’ in the post-Soviet spheres), Moscow: AIRO-XXI.
- Bordiugov, Gennadii, editor (2013) Mezhdu kanunami: Isotricheskie issledovaniia v Rossii za poslednie 25 let (Between tomorrows: Historical research in Russia in the last 25 years), Moscow: AIRO-XXI.
- Khlevniuk, Oleg (2008), Master of the House, Stalin and His Inner Circle, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- President of Russia, Meeting with designers of a new concept for a school textbook on Russian history http://eng.news.kremlin.ru/news/6536accessed 2014-05-07
- Petrov, Iurii, chief editor (2008), Ekonomicheskaia istoriia Rossii s drevneishikh vremen to 1917. Entsiklopediia, Moscow: Rosspen).
- Reuters. US edition Gaabriela Baczynska ‘Putin accused of Soviet tactics in drafting new history book’ 18 November 2013, http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/11/18/us-russia-history-idUSBRE9AH0JK20131118, accessed 20140507Ryzhkov, Vladimir (2013), ‘Putin’s Distorted History’, The Moscow Times, 18 November 2013.
- Satter, David (2011) It Was a Long Time Ago, and It Never Happened Anyway: Russia and the Communist Past, New Haven. CT: Yale University Press.
- Sherlock, Thomas (2007) Historical Narratives in the Soviet Union and Post-Soviet Russia: Destroying the Settled Past, Creating an Uncertain Future, London: Palgrave Macmillan.