Tag: Revolution

Highlights for Commemoration of the 1917 Russian Revolution – Hints for Further Study

20171211 Highlights for Commemoration Image

Professional historians in general have an ambivalent attitude towards anniversaries and commemorations of historical events, be they epochal or not. On the one hand, centennials and similar memorials may alleviate the funding of one’s research projects as the authorities likewise wish to highlight certain events. On the other hand, jubilee years can tend to divert historians from their ordinary research directions. Not for nothing would even frank scholars from Oxford, England complain in 2014 of the “tyranny of celebrations” and wish that nothing comparative to the centennial of the Great War 1914-1918 would appear soon.

In Russia, similar attitudes seem not to have appeared with respect to the centennial of the 1917 revolutions, the February and October revolution as traditionally called. In my April 2017 policy brief, I noted how universities all over Russia organized conferences devoted to various aspects of 1917. Many more publications have appeared as well as translations or new editions of classical works. Here I only hint at some accomplishments that may deserve to be studied for anyone who is genuinely interested in the historical debates in Russia.

This autumn, the leading institutes of the Academy of Sciences, the Institute for General History (IVI RAN) and the Institute for Russian History (IRI RAN) held their grand events with participation of leading scholars from the West, inter alia Hélène Carrère-d’Encausse and Alexander Rabinovich, to mention only a few. The IRI RAN presented its two-volume “The Russian revolution in 1917: The Power, Society, Culture” with the same emphasis as the main theme of the conference, i.e. how the historiography of the February and October revolution changed over time (see http://iriran.ru/?q=node/1699).

Western mass media and Russia observers in particular have during 2017, in my view, one-sidedly focused on how Kremlin would, or not, ‘celebrate’, ‘commemorate’, or even ‘want to forget’ the epochal events in Russia one hundred years ago. In contrast to other anniversaries, the 200th of Napoleon’s war on Russia or the 100th of the First World War, the highest political spheres have, as it seems for good reasons, left the information sphere quite free for the professional historians, film and TV producers, and others to commemorate at their own behest the 1917 revolution.

One important source of information about the commemoration of the 1917 Russian Revolution is the book published by AIRO-XXI, Association for the Study of Russian History in the 21th Century, led by the renowned historiographer Gennadyi Bordiugov. Just as for the anniversaries of the Victory in World War Two (in 2005 and 2015), Bordiugov and his colleagues in AIRO-XXI started a huge monitoring project in late 2016 in order to follow how various groups and centres all over Russia, as well as in major Western countries, were to commemorate the 1917 Russian revolution. The monitoring is by now complete and the result is the mighty book “Revolution-100. A Reconstruction of the Jubilee” (http://www.airo-xxi.ru/-2017-/2395–100-). This will for a long time serve as the best introduction to how Russia – in the broadest terms – comes to grips with the jubilee. The first articles give the background – how the October revolution was celebrated in the Soviet era and the major changes in the post-1991 Russia. Several contributions give the present-day context – how parallels are drawn between contemporary events in Russia and abroad, on the one hand, and the Russian revolution, on the other hand. The virtual sphere today, the Internet and blogosphere take up a much more important space for the younger generation than books and encyclopaedias; therefore the monitoring project also includes surveys of which aspects of the revolution are treated therein.

In contrast to what originally was set as leitmotiv for the commemoration – a reconciliation among groups and personalities with divided approaches to the Bolshevik takeover in particular and the Soviet experiment in general, most publications, exhibitions and meetings that the AIRO-XXI have monitored show that the epochal historical cataclysms one hundred years ago still are as divisive as before. The great contrast is that disputes are formalized and fact-based, that arguments from any side are given due consideration, and that most accept the device that “there is no final truth in history, merely arguments without end”.

The AIRO-XXI monitoring also treats the cinema, television and Internet series that were shown in connection with the jubilee. Much media interest was connected with the protests from the Orthodox Church against the film “Matilda” as it allegedly defamed the last tsar Nikolai II for showing his love affair in the 1890s with a prima ballerina. The artistic freedom finally triumphed and the debates only slightly influenced the mass of cinemagoers. We can also note that Russian television channels have sent pedagogical and dramatic series on some of the major figures of the revolution. One on the mythical Aleksandr Parvus (Helphand) with his views on revolutionizing Russia during the war, even with the help of the German General Staff; the other on Leo Trotskii as people’s commissar of war from 1918. These series and many others are vividly described in the AIRO-XXI volume by the philologist Boris Sokolov, who clearly presents where historical facts might have been twisted for the sake of art.

Mention should finally be made, for those who wish to follow how Russia’s leading professional historians analyse the revolution, that many lectures given at universities during 2017 are available at YouTube. Suffice it here to mention Vladimir Buldakov (for his books, see my previous policy brief), who since the 1980s researched the Russian revolutions and presented his main theses in “Krasnaya Smuta” (Red Troubled times). In 2017, he has lectured on this theme for various audiences (compare https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SG9T3H55Hrk;https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JnRXgCqGBrg; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9UPYYBnYow8)

To appreciate how an academic discussion on the ‘Great Russian Revolution ‘ – as many scholars today prefer to treat the events in 1917 – at its best can deepen our understanding, it is well worth pondering the arguments by renowned historians Aleksandr Shubin, Aleksandr Vatlin, Tatiana Nekrasova, Gennadii Bordiugov and Vladimir Pantin in the Kultura Channel program series “Chto delat?” (What is to be done) (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KQF0o8adIDw). Although each of the specialists had their own interpretations and various approaches, the mentor Vitalii Tretiakov, well-known journalist and formerly chief-editor of “Nezavisimaya Gazeta, managed to step-by-step highlight the issues that have divided historians in the past, as well as such matters that will call for renewed research.

In early 2017, some hoped that commemorative arrangements on the 1917 revolution would lead towards reconciliation between those opposing groups who still reason and argue as one or the other political parties of that era, between those who sympathized with the socialists in general and/or the Bolsheviks in particular, on the one hand, and those who ideologically has more affinity with the Liberal, Conservative or Monarchist groups, on the other hand. While such reconciliation is not yet in sight, the many articles in mass media, museum exhibitions and TV series have definitely heightened the older generations’ understanding of the very complex, intricate nature of the political, social and military forces that first led to the dissolution of tsarism, their fact-based knowledge of the tentative to establish a full democratic country even in the framework of the world war, and finally to a better grasp – than the standard Soviet orthodox narratives – of why and how the seemingly minuscular Bolshevik party could successfully grasp power in November 1917 and in the end also triumph in the devastating civil war.

It goes without saying that for school teachers all over Russia, the commemorative arrangements have provided a golden opportunity to engage their pupils and students in various forms of so-called living history, i.e. combining the state’s grand story with the localities’ and the families’ own histories.

To Commemorate the 1917 Revolution in Russia – Occasions More for Reflections than for Celebrations

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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.