Remembering Revolution

Note:  Students in Stephen Norris’s Spring 2017 class, Introduction to Russian and Eurasian Studies, participated in a final role-playing exercise that asked them to plan how best to remember the events of 1917 in Russia.  The students were divided into groups and given time- and location-specific guidelines in order for the entire class to see how different groups in different times and places would remember 1917.  One group was tasked with planning the official 1920 celebrations in Petrograd, a second with planning a counter-commemoration in 1924 France (among the Russian emigre community), a third with the 1927 official celebrations in Moscow.  The fourth and fifth groups took contemporary positions, with one planning an American art exhibit and another a Russian exhibit.  Below are sample reflections from students about this project.

Bolshevik Memories

By Mary Jane Fischer

As a Bolshevik party member in 1920, being tasked with designing a “people’s party” was invigorating because the event held so many possibilities. A people’s festival serves the purpose to re-educate the masses. The primary concern when designing the festival was focused on demolishing the “old” and celebrating the “new”. In other words the tsarist autocracy was to be scorched and the emerging Bolshevik government and its new policies and beliefs was to be acclaimed. We felt that this should be the most important takeaway from our festival.

As we learned in class, Anatoly Lunacharsky was appointed the People’s Commissar of Enlightenment, making him the head of our committee. When planning the festival, we wanted to make sure that our ideas lined up with his. On describing the people’s festivals, Lunacharsky said, “When organised masses walk in a procession to music, sing in one voice, or complete some great gymnastic exercises and dances– in short, if they hold their own kind of parade, but this parade is not military in nature but rather saturated by content that expresses ideological essence, hope, oaths and all other kinds of peoples’ emotions– when this is the case, then the remaining unorganized masses merge with the organized masses. The whole nation demonstrates its spirit in front of itself,”(Geldern). From this quote, we knew it was important to get the crowd involved, not just watching the processions, but partaking. It was important that they too were using their voices to sing and their feet to march. Only by partaking and being a part of movement would the people would feel like they had a say. They would feel like they had helped create this new government and it was something personal to them, something to be protected, cherished, and celebrated.

To get the people involved, we brainstormed various possible activities. There would be crafts for kids, where they could create suprematist artwork, which consists of relatively simple shapes that kids could conjure (that is not a dig at suprematism). As we learned in class, the Bolsheviks were especially concerned with educating children, as they would grow up to continue the Bolshevik vision and legacy. Additionally, there would be a contest for the “Best Dressed Nicholas II”. Essentially, the participants dress up in a way that ruthlessly makes fun of Nicholas II and his bourgeois lifestyle. The funniest costume wins. We also had the idea to commission Dmitri Moor, one of the Bolshevik’s most notable propaganda artists, to paint a mural where everybody could sign their name, pledging allegiance and showing their support to the new Communist government.

Art, especially the avant-garde, was a primary tactic used to educate the masses and invoke emotions that would support the rebellion. “Avant garde artists remade old streets, buildings, and statues with huge, brightly colored geometric constructions,” (Steinberg, 152). In the Uritsky Palace square, which is neoclassical in design, abstract (cubist) constructions and sculptures would be commissioned. These new structures would represent the new order of the Bolsheviks and would help the spectator visualize the difference between the old and the new and allowed them to physically experience it. Other visual representations of the Bolshevik’s victory over the oppressive tsarist government included a staged fight using actors to depict the struggle between the Red Army and the Tsar, poetry readings, film showings, and avant garde floats.

These people’s festivals were important to the success of the new government because the Bolshevik’s rise to power was not followed with immediate elation. According to Steinberg in The Russian Revolution, “most citizens, including workers, harbored ‘dark,’ ‘sorrowful,’ ‘melancholy’, ‘anxious,’ ‘confused,’ and ‘frightened’ feelings about the past and future,” (148). Despite these general feelings of despair, the festivals had the power to rally the masses and convince them of the good tidings that were headed their way. In order to raise moral and gain the support of the people, these festivals needed to portray the Bolshevik’s new order in a positive light, as something that is hopeful- and above all, infinitely better than the old tsarist government. And these festivals were widely successful. As Steinberg writes, “‘this was not the celebration of an anniversary, not the memory of effort and sacrifice, not the rapture of coming victory and creativity, but the joyful greeting of revolution, the happy laughter of the great masses that made the day of the Overturn great.’ And nothing less than the whole of human history, which had predetermined this revolution across the centuries, inspired the people’s festive delight. Insistent joyfulness would remain the hallmark of official street festivals,’ (152-3).

This assignment helped us to look at the revolution through the eyes of those who actually lived through the revolution themselves. By putting ourselves in their positions, we were forced to take into context what we have learned throughout the semester and apply it to realistic situations that these characters may have had to face in 1920.

 

Work Cited

 

Geldern, James Von. Bolshevik Festivals, 1917-1920. Berkeley: U of California P., 1993. Print.

Emigre Memories

By Aleah Sexton

Ah – my love for the Brothers of Russian Truth! Due to the events this evening, my confidence in our efforts to educate masses of the True and Honorable Russia is at its peak. Our plan to commemorate Old Russia has reached completion as our proposal was verbally announced to chapter. We will hold a Military Parade to the Eastern Orthodox Church where our script will be recited on the sacred steps. Our blessed Royal Family died through the onslaught of those damned Bolsheviks. Those imbeciles spread the propagation: “Peace, Love, and Bread” but this translates to: “War, Persecution, and Famine!” We acknowledge that Russia’s splendor is long past her. A new autocracy would unite Great Russia and free her from the enslavement of the Bolsheviks. The White Army rushed to revive our traditions. However, the socialist pigs deprived us of a fair war and instead raped our churches of its glory. They brainwash our children to believe in nothing but the “Socialist Revolution”. They destroy our history and fracture unions. Outside nations notice a new weak Russia and demand portions! These socialists are cowards are enemies and build a nation of lies. Our once illustrious motherland has been deprived of her glory and her memory is mocked. Brothers of the Russian Truth will change that perception! We educate Western Europe on the dangers of this socialist union. I swear on Tsar Nicholas II that the True Russia will be revived of her glory!

********

This commemorative project allowed me to take a different perspective on the Russian Revolution. In previous projects, I was a Bolshevik. I played curious about the promises of Lenin and pledged my loyalty to the New Russia. However, as a character of the White Émigré, I was given a new perspective on the revolution and forced to combat previous “realities”.

Before class, I researched the Brotherhood of the Russian Truth and learned they were a counter-communism organization. We decided that members of the Brotherhood of Russian Truth were to be the sole planners of the commemoration. The purpose of our memorial was to recollect on the beauty and stability of a strong Russia and stress the desolation and violence brought on by the actions of few men. We planned a parade of Russian military committees that reached the steps of the Orthodox Church. The Bolshevik ideology was credited as the foolish teachings of one man and his ability to appeal to masses was due to insanity. The commemoration was scheduled on May 18th to honor the Romanov lineage on Nicholas II’s birthday. For the declaration, we incorporated ornate and powerful language to tell the story of the once Great Russia for children and Parisians to easily understand. The motivation of the declaration was to unite as a movement and reminisce on a Russia of culture, wealth, peace, and organization. The storming of the Winter Palace that Bolsheviks highlight as the end of Old Russia was emphasized by our Brotherhood to be a devastating attack on tradition. I believe we accomplished the task of creating a commemoration to both celebrate and mourn Old Russia through our propagandist speech, Old Russian flag, Romanov crest, and distribution of White Army pamphlets.

This exercise allowed me to concentrate on a community that rejected the ideals of the socialist revolution. As mentioned above, I grew comfortable with my usual role of a peasant that supported Bolshevik efforts. However, as an émigré I recognized how the actions of the Red Army had an inverse effect on various factions. As written in Marc Raeff’s Russia Abroad, I was surprised to learn that the elite were not the only Russians that emigrated, but also “artisans, craftspeople, workers, employees, and a fair number of peasants” (5). It is important to note that some of the emigres fled not because they were hunted by the Bolsheviks, but simply because “they were committed to carrying on a meaningful Russian life. They were determined to … work as part and parcel of Russia, even in a foreign environment” (5). This further supports the belief that the Bolsheviks did destroy the Russia that many, even in the proletariat, cherished and respected. I learned that White movement created a society dedicated to merely preserving the Old Russia they believed in. This defied my previous assumption that emigres fled only because they were bourgeoisie. I realized that despite if one was a Bolshevik supporter or not, all commemorations acknowledged the change the socialists implemented on Russia – whether in mockery or celebration.

 

Final Role-Playing Reflection- Émigrés

By Cameron Devitt

One of the most interesting parallels that can be analyzed in terms of the Russian Revolution is the idea of Russia Abroad. In commemorating the events of October 1917 as émigrés, we hoped to capture the hopeful spirit of these abroad communities despite displacement from their homeland. Thus, one could say that our arguments through the commemorative exercise as émigrés in 1921, was to persuade the foreign community that the cultural superiority of old Russia is still alive, despite displacement, and to invoke the idea that with Lenin’s death, the potential of recentralizing the old Russia is still a possibility.

Since the émigrés were scattered throughout many cities in Europe, strong culture in terms of artistic, scholarly, and especially literary creations (which is my focus) were vital to keeping the old Russia alive in exile. In Russia Abroad, author Marc Raeff notes, “centers (of émigrés) formed wherever a significant number of scholarly and artistically productive émigrés found more or less stable circumstances where they could engage in creative work” (7). Through our work in putting together the propaganda room, we came across many periodicals that were equally important to our emigré commemorative exercise. Newspapers and journals such as as Voennaia Byl., “La Sentinelle,” and Posledniye Novosti kept the community alive and functioned well as a means of communication since, “Russia society in exile was relatively well educated, and it was primarily verbal in its cultural manifestations” (Raeff, 11). Therefore, these cultural items were of vital importance to the émigré community as the both served as a unifying measure and played a key role in maintaining the values associated with old Russia.

Of equal importance to the strong culture associated with Russia Abroad is the émigrés belief that they were living in temporary exile and would eventually return to their homeland when the state of old Russia was restored. Raeff states,

At first the exiles organized their lives to be ready to return and to reintegrate into the political, social, and cultural activities of their homeland the moment would be freed…they did not think of melding into the host societies…they wanted their children (whether born in Russia or abroad) to remain Russians and they feared their “denationalization” most. (4)

Likewise, in our speech commemorating the revolution we emphasized this idea by stating “But take great heart brothers, as the future looks bright to returning to our great country! Lenin, the great thief of Russia, has died. It has fractured into factions.” Hence, through pointing to the idea that Russia could soon be restored with Lenin’s death, we highlighted the émigrés certainty that the revolutionary uprising wouldn’t persist long-term and their belief that the factions fighting to control Russia would eventually give up in favor of the old order. Even though history didn’t unfold this way, in hindsight, the idea of Russia Abroad, and their citizens lack of integration into their host countries, is probably one of the greatest gifts to Russian culture; it allowed for the preservation of the old culture in a time where it would’ve been destroyed had it stayed in Russia under the Bolsheviks. It is the spirit associated with the émigrés situation and their fervent desire to retain their values as the years passed that allowed this vibrant culture to persist against dire circumstances.

Because the persistence of the Russia Abroad culture remained strong, it was also interesting to look at the diversity of people living in the abroad communities to gain a better understanding of how they retained their spirit for such a prolonged period. Despite my initial belief, it wasn’t only the wealthy monarchists who formed these Russian hubs abroad. Raeff states,

In the emigration, we not only find the former ruling elites…but also petite bourgeoisie, artisans, craftspeople, workers, and employees, as well as a fair number of peasants, especially if we consider the Cossack’s to be basically peasants. Nor was the Russian emigration homogeneous in its religious, ethnic, educational and economic makeup. (5).

This diversity is key in that it suggests that Russia Abroad was in fact representative of an entire society. Therefore, it was not foolish on their part to believe that they could bring back a fully-functioning society to Russia with all classes were represented (although probably not equally) despite their current decentralized situation.

To conclude, I will reference my favorite quote from Mark Steinberg’s, The Russian Revolution to summarize my understanding of the commemorative exercise. It reads,

It is not the work of the historian to predict the future- the past’s futures are hard enough to predict. Yet, somehow in our times we see a remarkable number of people across the world, mostly young, acting as if they believe that one must venture beyond the limits of life as it is to create life as it ought to be…These dreamers challenge all they judge to be negative in the world…and, not least, resist what we tell them is impossible to achieve. (356)

The émigrés valued their culture and saw the Russian Revolution and civil war as a disruption to a mostly positive existence. Thus, despite a relatively strong seizure of power by the Bolshevik’s, they “resisted” the idea that the might have their opportunity to revive their values within their homeland and pass on that sense of identity to the future generations; they retained hope for what they saw as a better life. In our commemorative effort of the Russian Revolution, I have come to understand both the extent to which Russia Abroad acted as true society and the great sense of hope that comes with being an exile desiring to return to a place where your beliefs feel valued. We all desire to “create life” as we believe “it ought to be” and the émigrés were no exception in trying to re-foster the life they desired for themselves and their loved ones.

 

Preserving the Vitality of the October Revolution—1927

By Mohinee Mukherjee

For years following the Revolutions of February and October 1917, Russians existed in a period of experimentation to determine how political efficacy and svoboda were imbedded in daily life, and how Marxism should influence the Russian state. By 1927, ten years had passed which also witnessed the end of World War I, the Russian Civil War, conflicts with and integration of non-Russian lands, War Communism, the New Economic Policy, and the death of Vladimir Lenin. At this time, the Bolshevik Party was safely in power in Russia but rapidly approaching the cusp of new leadership and an uncertain future. For that reason, the party sought to revitalize the energy of October 1917 and glorify it as a triumphant social revolution, to not only invigorate Russians into fully supporting the Bolsheviks but also stymie any opposition, especially to Joseph Stalin. My committee sought to commemorate the ten-year anniversary of the October Revolution in an all-encompassing, multi-media celebration that drew inspiration from workers and peasants, loathing of the Tsar and bourgeoisie, social movements, and foreign affairs. By reminiscing about the past and providing optimism for the future of Russia, we gained an understanding of what the Bolsheviks, known also as Soviets, truly valued about the Revolution, and how they influenced the memory of past events in attempts to galvanize Russians into unadulterated party support.

Prior to meeting as a group, I researched how the October Revolution was actually commemorated between 1918 and 1927. While there was consistent tension between autonomy of celebration and spontaneity from the Russians and government-approved celebration and order from the Soviets, the commemorations were “noteworthy for their scale” and exhibited “national strength and economic achievements” (Corbesero 125-126). Moreover, the Soviets enlisted different subcommittees to oversee revolutionary material through literature, art, film, theater, children’s programs, marches, and demonstrations (126, 130). These projects were completed with professionals, who had direct Soviet patronage, and amateurs, who performed at workers’ clubs around the country (125-126). Pairing that methodology with the diverse array of revolutionary topics, not limited to the February and October revolutions, heroes of socialist and communist movements both in Russia and abroad, and women’s rights, party officials effectively permeated revolutionary ideology to Russians (130). In this way, the Russians and the foreign visitors, who attended the commemorations, felt that they too were important components of the Revolution (136). In 1927, only three years after Lenin’s death, the Soviets faced intense pressure to “legitimize the new order and mold a new citizenry” to combat counterdemonstrations from revolutionary icons, such as Trotsky and other Left Opposition members (193, 197). The subsequent full-fledged celebration from this period inspired my group’s commemoration proposal.

In class, my group discussed the various media the Soviets utilized to vigorously recall the October Revolution, and we decided to use the same techniques to garner party support. Knowing that Stalin was a rising leader in 1927, we discussed whether to focus on promoting Stalin or the October Revolution, which did not have much activity from Stalin. We decided to plan some events that focused on the key figures of the October Revolution (such as Lenin, Trotsky, Kollontai, and Zinoviev) and other events that showcased Stalin as the new leader of the Soviet Union. In this way, we could appease both Stalin and the counterdemonstrators. One way we exhibited this compromise was by hosting a demonstration to re-create the storming of the Winter Palace with all Russians, where Stalin would act as the emcee to kick-off the event.

Beyond the demonstration, we decided to revitalize the Revolution through other channels. We wanted to heavily use cinema to showcase films about the Revolution, such as Eisenstein’s and Aleksandrov’s October, that would play both in the city and the countryside. We also would set up public art exhibitions that promoted Socialist Realist art, industrialization, Lenin, and communism. Per nostalgia about 1917, we would host readings and distribution of significant literature from that era. Our list was not limited to Lenin’s What Is to Be Done? and Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder, Kollontai’s Our Tasks, and Breshkovsky’s Grandmother of the Russian Revolution. Our children’s programs would enlist the Young Pioneers Choir of Lenin’s Komsomol to perform marches, calls to revolutionary solidarity, and The Anthem of Young Pioneers. In addition, the Komsomol would host activities to promote athleticism, discipline, and party loyalty. Our marches and parades across the country would promote revolutionary ideology and music that celebrate the overthrow of the Tsar and the Provisional Government, Lenin, and women’s rights, the last of which would mimic the bread riots on International Women’s Day in February 1917. In addition, for women in particular, we would showcase artwork that promoted Soviet women having agency in political, domestic, and workplace affairs. During this commemoration, we would invite foreign dignitaries and celebrities from all countries, as was done with John Reed in 1917 and Diego Rivera in 1927. We would give tours of Moscow and Petrograd, invite the dignitaries to participate in our commemoration activities, and provide training and resources about revolutions and communism.

In this group presentation, I contributed specifically to theater and music. As discovered in my research, I also wanted to focus on professional and amateur theatrical productions that displayed content about Lenin’s life, the Russian Revolutions, the Russian Civil War, workers’ movements, the French and Mexican Revolutions, and the Chinese Civil War. For music, I learned that Dmitri Shostakovich had written a symphony specifically for the 1927 commemoration called Symphony #2 in B Major, Op. 14 (To October). The symphony provokes the excitement and chaos of the Revolution and industrialization by using crescendos of instrumental dissonance, dominance of brass instruments, factory whistles, and a reading of Alexander Bezymensky’s To October.

Through these different mediums of glorifying the October Revolution, our group strived to reinvigorate Russians into reminiscing about 1917. Not only did we want the Russians to celebrate how the Revolution and communism positively impacted Russia politically, socially, and economically in the last ten years but also showcase how this Revolution extended the legacy of earlier revolutions (such as those in France and Mexico) and inspired a new generation of revolutions worldwide (such as in China). With all this in mind, our ultimate objective with the omni channel and multi-participant commemoration was to unify Russia and gather party support after Lenin’s death. With the threat of opposition from different factions, this October Revolution commemoration can be considered as a “cultural and historical memory intended to legitimize the young Soviet regime,” which situates itself well in our attempt to showcase an optimistic Soviet future with Stalin at the head (Corney 397).

 

 

Commemoration and Confusion: Historical Narratives of the October Revolution as “Winner’s Histories”

By Jacob Bruggeman

One of the reasons our ATH/HST/RUS 254 class has been so engaging has to do with the myriad perspectives we have considered in class. We attempted to hear voices from the periphery of the former Russian Empire, revolutionary murmurs in Central Asia, and the thoughts of workers, soldiers, women, and various ethnic groups. Our class, though, is fortunate enough to have a century’s worth of reflection, scholarship, and historical vetting on our side; the fracas of 1917, and those who found themselves acting within it, did not have this luxury. Indeed, one of the grand takeaways from our class might be that the Bolsheviks’ “winner’s histories”—which are by no means unique to 1917 and the Bolshevik state—are seldom holistic in their inclusion of the myriad ‘voices’ that we have paid due attention to throughout class. As such, planning a commemorative event of the October Revolution was a challenging exercise, for we needed to massage our event’s message so as to fit the Bolshevik, and increasingly Stalinist, history of the Revolution.

As part of Group C, I was charged with constructing the commemorations of the October Revolution in 1927, the 10-year anniversary of the Revolution. This was a challenging task, for in “the 1920s, the Bolsheviks were responding to many of the same pressures – the need rapidly to industrialize, to modernize agriculture, to build defense capability – that had motivated Nicolas II’s regime.”[1] These conditions, in a step back from the rhetoric of the Revolution, were addressed through the NEP, and so attempting to reconcile Bolshevik revolutionary rhetoric with the Party’s actions after their ascendance to power was headache-inducing for my group. Indeed, being only ten years removed from the October Revolution, yet in the midst of Stalin’s rise to power, made planning commemorations particularly difficult, for we had to grapple with Stalin’s inclusion on the October Revolution. To be sure, Stalin was rarely an important figure during the revolutionary goings on of 1917, but his eminence in the wake of Lenin’s death in 1927 necessitates some half-truths about the importance of his role in the October Revolution. Nevertheless, in 1927 the state leadership had not yet gone through the phase, in Trotsky’s words, when “a single ‘dictator’ [Stalin] substitute[d] himself for the Central Committee.”[2] Here again my group was presented with challenge: How do we reconcile the dwindling importance of other Bolsheviks while paying homage to the emerging leader, Joseph Stalin?

We dealt with this issue by, to be frank, avoiding it. Instead of focusing on the shifting political climate in 1927, our group’s commemoration detailed post-revolution developments in theater, music, cinema, various forms of art, literature, children’s programs, marches, women’s rights, a reenactment of the Storming of the Winter Palace, and invitations to multiple foreign dignitaries to come and witness our 10-year commemoration of the October Revolution. As these subjects make clear, we attempted to avoid dealing directly with Stalin’s rise to power, the “river of blood” unleashed in his ascendance, and importance of other figures such as Trotsky and Zinoviev.[3]

In commemorating theater, we decided to direct amateur productions on Lenin’s life, workers’ movements, the French Revolution, Mexican Revolution, and the Chinese Civil War. For music, our group would bring in the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra to play Dimitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 2, subtitled To October for the 10th anniversary of the October Revolution, and his Twelfth Symphony, subtitled The Year 1917. Similarly, our commemoration would feature films about the October revolution in every cinema throughout the state, along with temporary outdoor cinemas in the countryside. In terms of the classical arts—paintings and sculptures—public art exhibitions would be held so as to aid the masses in reflection upon the accomplishments of the state and the profundity of the October Revolution. The artwork displayed will be of the Socialist Realist school, each piece working with themes of industrialization, Communism, and the happenings of 1917.

Another series of public events will come in the form of readings of Lenin’s “What is to be Done?”, which will take place in city and town squares; Kollontai’s Our Tasks will be treated in the same way. With an eye to the Soviet youth, the Young Pioneers Choir of the Vladimir Lenin All-Union Pioneer Organization shall perform publicly for their fellow comrades, the selected songs for performance include rousing marches, calls to revolutionary solidarity and, The Anthem of Young Pioneers. In the same vein, the Komsomol will host a gathering for the promotion of athleticism, individual discipline, and subordination to the collective for the benefit of the Soviet youth. As was noted above, various marches will be held, and these will be organized around a reenactment of the Storming of the Winter Palace, an event to which numerous foreign dignitaries will be invited.

As these subjects make clear, it was difficult to reconcile the ‘official’ histories of the October Revolution with its gritty realities, and it was equally difficult to reconcile 1927’s political changes with the ‘winner’s histories’ told in and immediately after 1917, for these histories involved people other than Stalin. In the end, this activity helped me to understand the complexities of fabricating, in the face of conflicting accounts, a ‘winner’s history’.

[1] Smith, S. A. The Russian Revolution. New York: Sterling, 2011. Print. 160.

[2] Ibid., 161.

[3] Ibid.

Commemorating Revolution

By August Hagemann

Memory is powerful – only a cursory knowledge of history is necessary for that to become clear.  Especially modern Russian history.  From 1917 all the way up until the final collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian Communist Party sought to shape the Russian people’s memory of who they were and why they deserved to lead the country.  Of course, in order to play the hero, they had to have an origin story.  That story lay within the Russian Revolution, and how it was perceived.  Because of this, the Bolsheviks almost immediately began crafting  a narrative of the revolutionary struggle that made them out to be the true representatives of the Russian people.  As time went on, this narrative became grander and more solid still.  My group’s task in class last Tuesday was to step into the mindset of the Bolsheviks in 1927, just as the revolutionary story had finally fallen into place as the Bolsheviks wanted to, and decide how to commemorate it.  In true Bolshevik fashion, we decided the celebration would first clearly portray the Bolsheviks as the inheritors of the will of the Russian people, and second would be used as an opportunity to showcase the successes of Bolshevik ideology.

Such a grand goal required an equally grand celebration, so we decided on a variety of festivities and commemorations which were all to take place simultaneously – demonstrations, some by Communist youth organizations,  reenactments, commissioned works of literature, music, and art were all to have a place in our grand commemoration of 1917.  In order to cover such a broad range, we split our committee into even smaller “sub-committees” of a person or two each, who would focus on their own means of celebrating 1917 as well as how to tie it into our larger theme of Bolshevik legitimacy.  This would be done by focusing all these various celebrations on how happy the working people of Russia were that the Bolsheviks won the civil war, and how much more freedom and equality everyone had.  This was to be the universal cry of Russians everywhere – as a Bolshevik governmental committee, we did not consider the historical truth of this, for as far as we were concerned Bolshevik legitimacy was the only possible narrative, and the celebrations would help the people to understand that.

This was not to be a celebration for only Russians, however, and it was not to be an event focused on the past.  In 1927, the dream of an international Communist revolution was still alive, so we would invite foreign dignitaries from as many nations as possible to our celebrations.  This way, they would be exposed to the cultural and economic grandeur of the Soviet Union, and so would be more likely to foment insurrection in their own countries.  Because of this international aspect of our celebrations, our group did decide to include Zinoviev as a prominent figure in the celebrations.  Stalin was rising in 1927, but there were still old stars in the sky, so we wanted to make sure to include them.  That being said, during the reenactment of the storming of the winter palace, which was to be the crown jewel of our celebrations, we did decide to give Stalin a prominent part.  As an increasingly powerful member of the party, he certainly would have had some influence on our decision making, and we wanted to reflect that.

Such political considerations as that dominated our discussion of what the exact content of the celebration should be, and to me provided the primary lesson of the whole activity – in the Soviet Union, a society free of class struggle, power and politics were an inescapable part of everyday life.  My group made the decision to celebrate in such a broad manner, with the goal only of promoting Bolshevism as a whole at home and abroad, because in 1927 the political climate was far too stormy to give our weight to any one faction.  Had we actually been members of a 1927 celebratory committee, it is entirely possible the balance between Stalin and Zinoviev in our celebrations could have cost us our lives, but in 1927 we would have had no way of knowing that.  In post-revolutionary Russia, memory was power, and power was everything, so no celebration could have occurred without considering to whom it gave the power and why.

Commemorating the Russian Revolution

By Ali Forster

After a semester of learning about the Russian Revolution of 1917, students of HST 254 would finish the semester as they started it; with a role-playing exercise. Through the course, I have learned about the imperial dimensions of the Russian revolution and how different people experienced the revolution and civil war.

The exercise had different groups from different time periods and cities. I was assigned to group D, which was tasked with the official Russian 100 year commemoration. We were to pretend that Vladimir Putin asked our team to address the revolution in the year of 2017. Through working with and observing the group, I realized that the persistent, confident individuals had the most sway in the decision making process.

After discussion with the group and my own research I felt I had a good understanding of Putin’s opinions on revolution. Knowing his stance, I still felt strongly that our group should outright address the revolution in some depth. I knew Putin would dislike my method, but I figured the worst that would happen is that I am fired from my job. After learning about Soviet Russia where people could be executed or exiled from Russia for less, this punishment seemed bearable. Additionally, I did not want some unaffiliated citizen to attempt to commemorate the revolution in a way that we could not approve of.[1]

I wanted to highlight the negative aspects of the revolution by putting out propagandist posters. I had hoped to put out several posters; one would depict a hand in shackles holding a sickle and hammer. This visual propaganda would signify how the revolution only traded one ruler for another and the freedom the people had fought for was nonexistent. I am personally very interested in propaganda and was initially adamant that we use it. However, my group felt that my approach was too loud, too assertive and not sympathetic enough to Putin’s ideals. My attitude is to go big or go home, and evidently, my group would rather have gone home. They decided to play it safe and omit and ignore parts of the revolution. Realizing I was fighting a losing battle, I joined their ranks and tried to develop ideas along with them. Our group talked at great length about depicting the revolution as a bad thing. We knew we could not completely ignore the revolution, but we had to be careful not to glorify it. We wanted to emphasize that the revolution was a necessary evil in order for Russia to be where it is today. Our focus would be on a united Russia and how strong we are now.

Ultimately we decided to have a somewhat quiet commemoration. We determined that we would advertise minimally, though we would indeed advertise. Our group decided to host scholarly events that would focus on the negative aspects of the revolution like the bloody war, and the thousands of deaths. We claimed that the toppling of the tsar was good, but we wanted to ignore the bolshevism entirely. We planned to use art and culture to commemorate the centennial of 1917. We decided to put on plays and screen movies from 1917, and cultivate exhibitions of art from the time period. I believe it was Stacy who came up with the idea of a poetry competition highlighting how great Russia is today. Everyone loved that idea and jumped to expand upon it. The competition would be for school children, and the winner of the competition would perform it for Putin at the Kremlin. Towards the end of our meeting, Abby asked us if she should draw anything for the project and I joked that we should draw Putin in the artistic style that Annenkov used in his 17 portraits. Stacy coined the term ‘the 18th portrait’ and Abby drew him.

We ended our discussion with the decision to fly Russian flags at half-mast to honor those who died in the protests and really emphasize the honor of those that died fighting in the war. Overall I felt that my groups approach was mild. However, after a semester of learning about the harsh realities of the soviets and the propaganda they used, I feel that I may have been compromised by Bolshevism.

[1] Macfarquhar, Neil. “‘Revolution? What Revolution?’ Russia Asks 100 Years Later.” The New York Times. March 10, 2017. Accessed May 9, 2017.

The Russian Revolution in America?

By Katelynn Schieve

The Russian Revolution was a significant event in world history, but its complexity and its consequences in the Soviet Union make discussing it controversial. In the 100 years since, people have portrayed the Revolution to reflect the values at the time it was being commemorated. Remembering the Revolution during its anniversary is complicated, particularly in America where people have strong views on communism and Russia but little background on the Revolution itself. Deciding in a group how to commemorate the Revolution in America in 2017 made clear how complex the Russian Revolution was and helped me to understand the implicit biases that are present when people report or write scholarly articles or textbooks on a controversial moment in history like the Revolution.

One of the first components of the project we sought to address was the context: how should the Russian Revolution be presented today to Americans? Our group’s discussions revolved around two problems: the fact that most Americans know very little or nothing about the Russian Revolution and overall, Americans hate communism. Most Americans’ prior knowledge of the Revolution involves the big personalities: Stalin and Lenin, and that the Revolution resulted in communism. However, many Americans may not even be aware of when the Revolution took place or that there were multiple revolutions and revolts. Americans’ view of communism also impacted our decision. They still do not have a very positive relationship with Russia, especially after the 2016 election. Americans generally believe that communism is evil and results in the government trying to control every part of people’s lives. A small amount of academics or more learned people feel communism is good in theory but has never been carried out well. How we framed the Revolution would likely be judged negatively by many Americans if we didn’t criticize communism enough or showed the negative consequences, like at Royal Academy. Art critic Jonathan Jones denounced the exhibition focusing on Russian Art from 1917-1932 as focusing too much on the utopian ideals and not mentioning the evils of the Stalinist regime and what communism lead to (Jones, 2017). Any portrayal we made would reveal our opinions of communism.

We made the decision to have a children’s museum so that we could portray the basic ideas of the Revolution to children and adults who had very little background knowledge. Designing a museum to teach the fundamentals of the Revolution in an interactive experience was appealing to the group. We wanted to be able to express the reasons and different perspectives of the Revolution while keeping it understandable and not being too soft on communism and the grim realities of Stalinism. In order to do this, we decided on having larger exhibits focused on the background and reasons for the Revolution and the consequences of the February Revolution told from the perspectives of children. We looked at the Holocaust Museum as a model for how we could make the Revolution exhibit appealing and interactive for children, while still explaining the seriousness. We had a peasant child walking visitors through her hovel and explaining the peasants’ problems that lead to the Revolution and a bourgeois child show the inequality the February Revolution fought against. We wanted to show the ideals of the Revolution and why it happened. In order for us to have this stance in the US, we decided to have the rest of the exhibits walk through a timeline until the collapse of the Soviet Union. This way, we are able to connect the exhibits to what many adults at least would have more prior knowledge on, having lived through parts of the Cold War. In seeing exhibits based on events they or their parents witnessed on the news, parents are able to build upon their prior knowledge and help their children make connections. In deciding what to include, I realized that when textbook companies and scholars write about the Revolution or when museum curators design an exhibit, they make judgments on what the importance of the Revolution is and what readers and listeners should walk away learning from a simplified version of a very complex period of history. The Royal Academy gallery of the Revolution wanted to portray the stunning new art styles that came out of the Revolution and the idealism of the people. They wanted visitors to come away with a different perspective on the Revolution as having high ideals and potential for a new type of nation. We chose to portray the idealism and reasons behind the Revolution, which may conflict with Americans’ notions of communism and Russia but still include the harsh consequences and what went wrong.

This project helped me to better understand the complexity of the revolution and the difficulty of making decisions of what to portray when remembering the Russian Revolution. The Revolution was a monumental social revolution that changed the course of world history. Most people in the US know very little about it, but by having a children’s museum for its anniversary, we hope to tell the story of the reasons, the ideals and potential, and the outcomes of the Russian Revolution leading up to today to the youth of America and their families.

Works Cited

Jones, J. (2017, February 01). We cannot celebrate revolutionary Russian art – it is brutal propaganda. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2017/feb/01/revolutionary-russian-art-brutal-propaganda-royal-academy

 

About Stephen Norris