By Dr Matt Rendle
Historians rarely miss the opportunity to mark a major anniversary and there is little doubt the centenary of the Russian Revolution is more significant than most. The events of 1917 and the creation of the Soviet Union influenced the rest of the twentieth century on a global scale, whether as inspiration for innumerable social movements or through the Cold War. At the height of the conflict, communist-inspired states spread across the globe from Europe, China and South-East Asia to Africa and Latin America. Unsurprisingly, the legacy of this influence still shapes these states and, indeed, global politics more broadly; as we have seen recently, Cold War rhetoric is never very far away.
It is important, therefore, for historians to mark the centenary of the revolution. At the very least, it serves as an opportunity to assess our current state of understanding of the revolution and to explore ways in which research might progress in the future. This desire has fuelled numerous plans for conferences and publications, ranging from special issues of journals to multi-volume projects consisting of new research, and from focused volumes on particular themes to volumes assessing the state-of-the-field in key areas. Several new surveys of the revolutions are displayed prominently on the shelves of high-street bookstores, some more ambitious than others, whilst popular history magazines run articles on everything from Nicholas II and Rasputin to Lenin and the Cold War. Taken together, this outpouring of research and writing should help define the field today and set the agenda for future research, and there is little doubt that historians will emerge from the centenary with an extended understanding of the events, processes and people that constituted the revolution.
Commemorating the centenary, however, is also important for what it tells us about the present. The most obvious case is Russia itself. Perhaps curiously, there remains little information on how Russia will actually mark the centenary. It was only in December 2016 that Putin established a commission to organise events and this only met for the first time in January 2017, proposing a series of conferences, exhibitions and media events. In comparison with the national events that greeted the bicentenary of Napoleon’s 2012, for instance, everything looks rather underwhelming so far. Yet this is valuable; it reminds us how contentious the revolution remains within Russian society and how difficult it is for the state to forge an acceptable narrative from 1917. On the one hand, the state is not keen to commemorate either of the revolutions in 1917 – February or October – as the former stood for western-style, liberal democracy, whilst the latter stood for communism and led to the formation of the Soviet Union. Both ideologies are problematic in a Russia that sees itself as distinct from its communist past yet pursuing its own brand of managed democracy. On the other hand, the whole concept of revolution is problematic. Putin has consistently argued against the value of revolution as he does not want to inspire civil unrest within Russia and he has in recent years, drawing on events in the Middle East, portrayed revolution as leading to instability, extremism and terrorism. Russia will do something official to commemorate 1917, probably around October which was the major public holiday for the revolution during the Soviet period, but it is likely to be far more understated than we might expect.
Finally, the revolution remains important for its influence globally. Putin has cited the revolution as a key reason for Russia’s annexation of the Crimea and involvement in the fighting in Eastern Ukraine. In his view, Russia is correcting the mistakes of the Bolsheviks, who gave too much autonomy to national minorities and drew arbitrary national barriers that left many ethnic Russians outside of their home state. Many of the current tensions around Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia stem from their post-revolutionary experiences. At the same time, growing discontent with mainstream politics in many western countries has led, most prominently, to a resurgence of the Right, but there are also revived grass-roots left-wing movements that continue to be inspired by the ideals of the revolution. Their publications, too, have been marking the centenary, but as a way of assessing the prospects and paths for further political and social change.
Against this background, the importance of continuing to reassess the revolution is clear. I was pleased, therefore, to hear from the editors that they were planning this special issue of The Historian devoted to the Russian Revolution and I was honoured when they asked me to contribute a foreword. I hope these articles gain a wide readership and I hope they inspire more people to read and study the revolution in more detail, and to think more about the legacy of the revolution as the centenary progresses this year.
For the biggest publication project, see: http://russiasgreatwar.org/index.php
For a recent, free-to-view special issue, see http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/hisr.v90.247/issuetoc
If you’re in London soon, see: https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibition/revolution-russian-art or https://designmuseum.org/exhibitions/imagine-moscow
An interesting reflection on Russia’s views of the centenary: https://theconversation.com/friday-essay-putin-memory-wars-and-the-100th-anniversary-of-the-russian-revolution-72477