Printer Friendly

On the centenary of revolution.

On the eve of the 1917 Revolution, [the writer] Alexander Grin wrote, "And the future seems to have stopped standing in its proper place." Now, a hundred years later, the future is, once again, not where it ought to be. Our time comes to us secondhand.

--Svetlana Alexievich (1)

The bicentennial of the French Revolution was an "international extravaganza" that culminated on 14 July 1989 with a week of celebrations, including a huge military parade, an inaugural concert at the newly built Bastille Opera, official visits by some 30 heads of state, an open-air rock and jazz concert, fireworks, and street carnivals. (2) As the Tiananmen Square Massacre had occurred just a month earlier, Chinese students in France were invited to march, and they wore headbands bearing the Chinese characters for the revolutionary ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity. For President Francis Mitterrand, of course, the spectacle was meant to transmit messages about contemporary republican France, its power and influence in the world. As historians understand very well, commemoration of the past is fundamentally shaped by the politics of the present. (3) Indeed, despite the historian Francois Furet's earlier assertion that the French Revolution was "over," (4) finally relegated to the past, the bicentennial was accompanied by intense academic and publicistic debate about its significance, character, and legacies, including the perennial questions of the relationship between 1789 and 1794, the revolution's place in the origins of modernity, and the relevance of the revolution to contemporary France. (5) One historian later described this debate as its own kind of Historikerstreit. Though one would not want to push the parallel too far, it is instructive that this almost contemporaneous controversy among German historians and the philosopher Jurgen Habermas was prompted in part by the resentment of one infamous historian, Ernst Nolte, about the "the past that did not pass." In his view, Germany was unfairly saddled with its Nazi past, and he sought repeatedly to relativize and minimize German responsibility. (6)

The centenary this year of the Russian Revolutions of 1917, heralded by numerous academic conferences and events as wrell as exhibitions, both in Russia and across the world, has triggered some debate about responsibility, usable histories, the connection between past and present, and ultimately the relationship between academic history and contemporary politics--though not as much as one might expect. (7) Of special relevance to historians (due to its potential for undergraduate teaching) is an innovative website designed by Mikhail Zygar', Project 1917, which is documenting each day of the revolutionary year by reproducing excerpts from a wide range of personal and media sources. (8) Another website prompts visitors to contemplate the role they would have played in the summer of 1917--would you be a Kadet, a Black Hundred, a Bolshevik, a Menshevik, a Left SR?--and, by extension, the kind of political posture they might assume in their own world. (9) In comparison to France's bicentennial celebrations, however, little official fanfare is planned. At least from the perspective of Putin's Russian Federation, 1917 has not produced much usable history. As numerous newspapers have now reported, the problem is largely political: the public-historical status of the revolution might best be described as fraught. (10) While Putin clearly has no qualms about claiming the heroic episodes and achievements of Soviet history for the Russian nation and while many Russians continue to regard Stalin (much more so than Lenin) as a great leader, the actual birth of the Soviet Union seems to be viewed with some discomfort. The contemporary sway of national(ist) history has caused major public controversies about historical accuracy and mythmaking, but these have focused more on later periods, such as the highly celebrated Panfilovtsy of World War II (whose careers archival sources have revealed to be overblown and falsified). (11) So what about the revolution itself? Is it perhaps "over," relegated to the past and thus not worthy of controversy? Is this why there seems to be little sign of a significant public Historikerstreit around the centenary of 1917?

Paradoxically, the absence of formal commemoration suggests rather that the revolution is very much alive--a specter, perhaps, haunting the political imagination. For Putin and other proponents of a strong Russian state, the main lessons of 1917 concern the dangers of mass action and violent upheaval, which weaken the state and potentially allow foreign powers to take advantage. Even as Putin has celebrated the achievements of the Soviet Union (and occasionally criticized its crimes and excesses), he has likewise celebrated the prerevolutionary imperial regime, encouraging public nostalgia for the tsars. What unites these views is not a conventional ideological perspective--support for either the Reds or the Whites--but an overriding interest in extending the principle of state power (gosudarstvennost'). (12) With such an interest likewise casting 1917 (and the subsequent Civil War) more as a tragic setback in the triumphant history of the state, it is all the more convenient to blame unrest (both then and more recently, as in the so-called "color revolutions") on a small cabal of outside agitators or foreign powers intent on undermining the state. It behooves us to remember that Putin came to power after the disastrous decade of the 1990s, a period associated with collapse, insecurity, poverty, and crime that remains potent in the memory of many Russian citizens.

Some 25 years ago, of course, the dissolution of the Soviet bloc in 1989 followed by that of the USSR in 1991 also ushered in a period of retrospective historical accounting and prediction, most notoriously with Francis Fukuyama's essay (and later book) "The End of History." (13) While Fukuyama's celebration of the victory of liberal democracy was clearly premature, the caesura of 1989/91 was very real for historians. On one level, it marked an exhilarating opportunity: the opening of the archives, it was believed with almost millenarian enthusiasm, would allow us to fill in all those gaps and holes, even to write fundamentally new histories. (14) Though the gates to some archives soon began to swing shut, it is difficult to overstate the impact of this moment on empirical historical research. To be sure, comparatively little new attention was given to the revolutionary year itself, with most interest focusing initially on the 1920s and, especially, the 1930s before moving on to the postwar era. Among academics interest in this later period remains dominant today: with few exceptions, submissions to Kritika for the Soviet era favor the war and postwar eras.

In one important sense, therefore, the sudden end to the Soviet revolutionary experiment did mean that the revolution itself was over, if not quite as Furet meant. As numerous scholars have remarked, the revolution itself was fundamentally "anticipatory," containing within itself particular concepts of temporality. (15) As the supposed product of the Marxist historical dialectic, the revolution as an event--the seizure of state power in 1917 by the proletariat led by the vanguard party (in one telling)--was long anticipated but then immediately followed by the revolution as process--the social leveling of 1917-18, the building of socialism, and, in Khrushchev's vision, the drive to achieve communism by 1980. Though the Utopian longing for the future would decline under the "really existing socialism" of the Brezhnev years, it certainly never disappeared: propaganda continued to proclaim from the rooftops that Lenin lived and would always live. As Alexei Yurchak so vividly demonstrated for the last Soviet generation, everything--the ongoing revolution included--seemed "forever, until it was no more." (16) The perceived suddenness of the collapse of the Soviet Union was partly due to the very late realization, both within the USSR and outside its borders, that this collapse was even possible. Only afterwards were we fully able to see it coming. Even so, while any direct causal links between the revolutionary events of 1917 and the collapse of the Soviet Union seem tenuous at best, Putin himself has blamed the Bolsheviks' decision--spearheaded by Lenin--to create a multinational union based on territorial units for the emergence of national movements and ultimate dissolution of the USSR. (17)

The end of "forever" thus facilitated important shifts in how historians conceived their object of study and in the questions we began to pose. For a spell, the late imperial period was an especially vibrant research field. As the Soviet Union itself became bounded in historical time, the impetus to narrate the (teleological) origins of the revolution declined, and historians felt liberated to explore all sorts of other questions, many long neglected, from religion and (Russian) nationalism to consumerism, mass culture, civil society, and gender. Partly due to the pivotal role played by the "nationalities question" in the collapse of the USSR, the imperial dimensions to Russian and Soviet history likewise seemed especially urgent, and this burgeoning field of study continues to produce some of the most exciting research today. As for the revolutionary transition itself, much research has tended to focus either on local and regional studies or to widen the scope of analysis to what Peter Holquist called the "continuum of crisis" of 1914-21 and to pose broader comparative questions about a pan-European modernity. (18) A few scholars, Boris Kolonitskii most prominent among them, have likewise explored the political culture of revolution. (19) Nevertheless, much of the most influential scholarship on the year 1917--especially the many important works of social history published primarily in the 1970s and 1980s--remains standard in the field today. (20)

Nevertheless, our current issue reexamines some of the core debates around the causes and character of the 1917 revolution through an Ex Tempore devoted to discussion of a polemical article by the historian Boris Mironov. A specialist on the imperial era, as the introduction to the Ex Tempore explains in more detail, Mironov has long argued for the viability of the late imperial Russian state and the successes of Western-style modernization. Following from this, as he sees it, the revolutions of 1917 were the result less of tsarist political oppression or even the economic dislocations of the Great War than the machinations and plotting of elites (including the Bolsheviks). (21) Most controversial, perhaps, will be his full-throated dismissal of the political maturation and, indeed, basic political capacity of workers, whom he describes as "cannon fodder," a dismissal of understanding and agency that goes against the research of generations of" social and cultural historians. Critical responses have been solicited by two leading scholars of Russian labor, William Rosenberg and Diane Koenker, as well as by one of the new generation of scholars focusing on the revolution in the provinces, Sarah Badcock. A number of the issues of the forum will be familiar to specialists, which itself" raises questions about historiographical cycles (and whether it is in fact periodically necessary to revisit old territory). While we share many of the objections offered by Mironov's critics here, we nonetheless hope that open discussion of his argument will elicit productive insights about revolutionary moments, seen not from the perspective of elite manipulation but from that of ordinary people, whose myriad aspirations--including for respect, autonomy, and dignity--deserve to be taken seriously.

The duality in the meaning of the term "Russian Revolution" also makes it difficult to mark the centenary of 1917: how should we disentangle the events of the single year from the subsequent 74-year process of the revolution's unfolding? How should we demarcate the temporal boundaries of the revolution, its origins and its endings? To this day, Lenin's preserved body continues to lie in his mausoleum; his name--along with other names, events, and values associated with the revolution--still adorns streets and squares; and statues remain scattered across the post-Soviet landscape in a sometimes awkward juxtaposition with Orthodox churches and luxury stores. One of the finest observers of this landscape in all its hues is the writer and oral historian Svetlana Alexievich, the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. In Secondhand Time, she recalls what it was like in the late 1980s when "we learned the history that they had been hiding from us," the willful violence and disregard for human life that went back to the earliest days after the October Revolution, and she ruminates on the nature of freedom and complicity, before proceeding to weave a tapestry of the feelings and experiences that made up the Soviet and post-Soviet eras. (22)

Yet in this centenary year it is worth looking again at 1917, not just through the lens of its outcomes and legacies, important as they are, but as a moment in itself, a time when diverse people strove--with outrage and fear but also with hope and solidarity--for their own rendition of the ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity. With the paucity of fresh academic research on 1917 that coincides with the desultory public commemoration of 1917 in Russia today, it is hard to escape the conclusion that 1917 simply deserves more attention. Indeed, if the questions we ask of history are shaped by the politics of the present, then we might want to think more about the perspectives offered by the year 2017, a moment marked by a worldwide resurgence of rightist populism and authoritarian government, almost unprecedented global and national levels of socioeconomic inequality, the fast advancing peril of ecological catastrophe, as well as the reappearance of mass protest movements striving for social, economic, racial, and environmental justice from the Arab Spring through today. It might just be an auspicious moment, echoing Steve Smith and Mark Steinberg, to revisit the complex and messy history of revolutionary politics and social movements as well as the experiences, emotions, and ideals that inspire them. (23)

(1) Svetlana Alexicvich, Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets. An Oral History (New York: Random House, 2016), reviewed in this issue of Kritika.

(2) Coverage of the festivities was extensive. See James Markham, "France Celebrates a Day of History," New York Times, 14 July 1989 ( france-celebrates-a-day-of-history.html); "France Celebrates Its Bicentennial with Tanks, Planes, and Parades," Los Angeles Times, 16 July 1989 ( mn-5742_1_parade-route); and "7/14/89: Frances Bicentennial" (http://abcnews. For a history of the bicentennial, see Steven Laurence Kaplan, Farewell Revolution: Disputed Legacies, France 1789/1989 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995).

(3) One of the most influential works on historical memory dates to this general period: Pierre Noras four-volume collection of essays, Les lieux de memoire. For an influential article in English, see his "Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Memoire," in "Memory and Counter-Memory," special issue of Representations 26 (Spring 1989): 7-24. The French volumes have been translated as Rethinking France: Les Lieux de Memoire, 4 vols. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001-10).

(4) Originally published in French in 1979, Francois Filler's Interpreting the French Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981) contained a chapter titled "The French Revolution Is Over."

(5) See, e.g., Lynn Hunt, "It's Not Over Till Its [sic] Over, and It's Not Over," New York Times, 10 September 1989 ( it-s-not-over-till-its-overand-it-s-not-over.html?pagewanted=all).

(6) For a brief discussion of the similarities and differences between the French and German disputes, see Kaplan, Farewell Revolution, chap. 1. There is an extensive literature on the Historikerstreit'., for an overview, see Richard J. Evans, In Hitler's Shadow: West German Historians and the Attempt to Escape from the Nazi Past (New York: Pantheon, 1989).

(7) Notable among the many exhibits is the Royal Academy of Arts, "Revolution: Russian Art, 1917-1932" ( It garnered a remarkably critical review: Jonathan Jones, "We Cannot Celebrate Revolutionary Russian Art--It Is Brutal Propaganda," The Guardian, 1 February 2017 (https://www. See also the exhibit "1917: Kod revoliutsii," currently on display at Moscow's Museum of Russian Contemporary History (Muzei sovremennoi istorii Rossii,

(8) Although the Russian site is more extensive, there is also an English version. See https:// For an overview of the project, see "Mikhail Zygar' zapustil proekt k 100-letiiu Oktiabr'skoi revoliutsii," Kommersant, 15 November 2016 ( doc/3143828).

(9) "Who Are You in 1917 Russia?" (

(10) Neil MacFarquhar, '"Revolution? What Revolution?' Russia Asks 100 Years Later," New York Times, 10 March 2017 (; Shaun Walker, "Tragedy or Triumph: Russians Agonise Over How to Mark 1917 Revolutions," The Guardian, 17 December 2016 (https://www. 917-revoIutions-legacy-lenin-putin).

(11) Sec Alexander Statiev, "'La Garde meurt mais ne se rend pas!' Once Again on the 28 Panfilov Heroes," Kritika 13, 4 (2012): 769-98. The publication of a 1948 archival document (see http://statearchive.iii/607) in 2015 ignited a huge public debate. For an overview, see "Russian Archives Cast Doubt on Legends of Soviet War Heroes," Moscow Times, 9 July 2015 ( russian-archives-cast-doubt-on-legends-of-soviet-wrar-heroes-48026).

(12) One proposal, put forth by a senator from Crimea (and citing the historical lessons Putin has drawn), would be for a Civil War monument dedicated to "reconciliation." Its symbolic purpose would be to help society, in the face of problems, to be "unified, united, and consolidated" (chtoby nashe obshchestvo, stalkivaias ' s problemami, bylo edinym, monolitnym, i kovsolidirovannyrn). See "Tsekov predlozhil ustanovit' v Krymu 'pamiatnik primireniia' v pamiat' o Grazhdanskoi voine," Krymskoe informatsionnoe agentstvo, 2 December 2016 (

(13) Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Free Press, 1992).

(14) Among the most influential programmatic articles from that era are Stephen Kotkin, "1991 and the Russian Revolution: Sources, Conceptual Categories, Analytical Frameworks," Journal of Modern History 70, 2 (1998: 384-425; S. A. Smith, "Writing the History of the Russian Revolution after the Fall of Communism," Europe-Asia Studies 46, 4 (1994): 563-78; and Ronald Gregor Suny, "Revision and Retreat in the Historiography of 1917: Social History and Its Critics," Russian Review 53, 2 (1994): 165-82.

(15) The term "anticipatory" comes from Martin Malia, History's Locomotives: Revolutions and the Making of the Modern World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006).

(16) Alexei Yurchak, Everything Was Forever Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005).

(17) "Vladimir Putin Accuses Lenin of Placing a 'Time-Bomb' under Russia," The Guardian, 25 January 2016 ( vladmir-putin-accuses-lenin-of-placing-a-time-bomb-under-russia).

(18) Peter Holquist, Making War, Forging Revolution: Russia's Continuum of Crisis (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002).

(19) See, e.g., Boris Kolonitskii, Simvoly vlasti i bor'ba za vlast': K izucheniiu politicheskoi kul'tury Rossiiskoi revoliutsii 1917 goda (St. Petersburg: Dmitri Bulanin, 2001).

(20) The bibliography is too extensive to cite here.

(21) In addition to his article here, see the recently published fourth and extensively expanded edition of Mironov's well-known Sotsial 'naia istoriia Rossii, now retitled Rossiiskaia imperiia: Ot traditsii k modernu, 3 vols. (St. Petersburg: Dmitrii Bulanin, 2014).

(22) These issues had, of course, been debated previously in Western publications, but the opening of the archives was particularly shocking for Soviet citizens. See Alexievich, Secondhand Time, 5. See also Robert Tucker, ed., Stalinism: Essays in Historical Interpretation (New York: W. W. Norton, 1977).

(23) S. A. Smith, Russia in Revolution: An Empire in Crisis, 1890-1928 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), esp. 393. On the problem of "experience," see also Mark D. Steinberg, The Russian Revolution, 1905-1921 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017). It is worth noting that historians of the French Revolution have continued to rethink the meaning of the revolution through the lens of contemporary issues--in one case, the 2008 economic collapse; see Colin Jones, "Twenty Years After," French Historical Studies 32, 4 (2009): 679-87.
COPYRIGHT 2017 Slavica Publishers, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2017 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:From the Editors; Russian Revolution, 1917-1921
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:Mar 22, 2017
Previous Article:Crossing intellectual borders.
Next Article:Prince Mikhail of Chernigov: from maneuverer to martyr.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters