How to Commemorate What’s Still Present: The Russian Revolution in 2017

Soldiers of the Petrograd Garrison after they mutinied in February 1917.  Photo by Karl Brulla.  From https://russiainphoto.ru.

By August Hagemann

On Monday, September 11th, 2017, Miami University’s Havighurst Center kicked off its Fall 2017 Colloquia Series by hosting Dr. Donald Raleigh, the Jay Richard Judson distinguished professor of history at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.  As this year marks the 100th anniversary of Russia’s Revolution, Dr. Raleigh focused his talk on several broad themes within the Russian Revolution – the isolation and competence (or incompetence) of the royal family, and the role World War 1 played in initiating the Revolution – as well as on what the implications for the Russian Revolution are today.

Before discussing the implications of the Revolution, or even the Revolution itself, Raleigh painted a picture of the relationship between Russia’s royal family and its people.  He began with Tsar Alexander II, often viewed as a progressive and reform-minded ruler.  Raleigh argued that this is a mistaken perception – his personal correspondences indicate that Alexander II very much viewed himself as a traditional Russian autocrat, and instituted his sweeping reforms to Russia’s social and legal structures only to appease the increasingly dissatisfied members of Russia’s poorer classes.  Thus, Raleigh argued, the next two tsars, Alexander III and Nicholas II, were not reactions against the excessive liberalism of Alexander II, who would eventually be assassinated.  Instead, they maintained his attitudes, simply with far more of a mind to repress reformers and revolutionaries rather than appease them.

Dr. Raleigh moved on to discuss to what extent these tactics of repression were effective, focusing in on Russia’s last tsar, Nicholas II. This point was quickly and effectively argued with a reference to Nicholas’ own words: “…I am not fit to rule.”

But an incompetent autocrat does not guarantee a revolution.  After Bloody Sunday and the ensuing 1905 Revolution, Russia had a parliamentary body, albeit an extremely limited one.  Nonetheless, the society’s middle classes were given a limited voice in the public sphere and it seemed possible Russia could be on a reformatory rather than revolutionary course between 1905 and 1917.  There remains significant debate among historians of the Russian Revolution as to whether these reformist tendencies were derailed and made revolutionary by World War I, or whether they were illusory to begin with.  The first point is argued by Oxford University’s Stephen Smith in his 2017 book Russia in Revolution, where he maintains that were it not for World War I, Russia feasibly could have avoided revolution through reform.  Raleigh argued the opposite side in his lecture – that there never was true reform in Russia. Rather, the country was headed toward Revolution from the first shots fired in 1905, propelled by the friction between modernizing economic forces and a monarchy determined to maintain the power structures of the seventeenth century.

But where the Romanov dynasty failed by looking backwards, Dr. Raleigh brought his talk closest to his contemporary audience by looking into the present and the future – at how the Russian Revolution has affected the world, and how it is being remembered in Russia and internationally this year.  Calling the Revolution “the most important event of the twentieth century”, Dr. Raleigh outlined how it influenced not only events in Russia, but also Russia’s relations with the rest of the world, especially the west.  The Revolution also spawned countless other revolutionary communist parties in other nations, and even other communist revolutions – most notably in China, Cuba, and Vietnam, but also throughout Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia.  This influence is a large part of the reason why Dr. Raleigh himself and countless of his colleagues continue to study the Revolution.  Even though the Soviet Union no longer exists as a political entity, its influence can still be strongly felt around the world.  Dr. Raleigh touched on how contemporary Russia is attempting to distance itself from its revolutionary past, as commemorative events tend to focus more on World War I than on the Revolution. President Vladimir Putin himself talks of how Russia has had “enough of revolution” for the time being.  Despite this, academic conferences within Russia and elsewhere focusing on the Russian Revolution are taking place this year, as the centenary of the Revolution generates renewed interest in its study.

This means even more debate surrounding the sweeping themes Dr. Raleigh touched on.  This year’s Havighurst Colloquia series coincides with an undeniably fresh and exciting time in the field.

August Hagemann is a second-year student majoring in Economics and Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies.

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