ZOiS Spotlight 2/2017

Russia’s tentative approach to the revolutionary year of 1917

by Nina Frieß 22/03/2017

On 23 February 1917, thousands of female workers in Petrograd, now again St. Petersburg, took to the streets demanding bread and peace as well as the right to vote for women. This was the beginning of the first Russian revolution in 1917. The February revolution was the end of the rule of the tsars and paved the way for the second revolution of 1917 – the October revolution which eventually brought the Bolsheviks to power. After the calendar reform of 1918 that replaced the Julian with the Gregorian calendar, February 23 fell on March 8. Since 1921, the International Women’s Day has been celebrated on this day.

On 8 March 2017, the Russian president Vladimir Putin congratulated all women of Russia on the occasion of International Women’s Day. He did not mention at all the events that took place 100 years ago, and they were not a news item on this day. Instead, the TV-channels broadcast many images of men before, during and after buying flowers and women who were pleased to be given flowers.

Judging by the coverage of the event in the Russian media on 8 March this year, one gets the impression that Russia has difficulties remembering 1917. Only at the end of December 2016, president Putin set up a committee tasked with coming up with an appropriate framework for commemorating the revolutionary year. On 23 January 2017, the committee met for the first time. When it is going to present its first recommendations is unknown. The first anniversary, the one of the February revolution, has already passed. For the Russian political leadership, the commemoration of the revolutions of 1917 is so difficult because of the country’s diffuse politics of memory. Primarily the positive sides of Russian history are remembered nowadays, be it the expansion of the Russian Empire under the rule of the Romanovs or the Soviet Union’s rise to a global power after the Second World War. Events like the Stalinist repressions are not necessarily denied, but remain by and large neglected. This results in a fragmented culture of remembrance that allows a large part of the Russian population to pick and choose the historical events and figures that fit best to their own philosophy of life.

The year 1917 bears the problem that it is linked to two events which are highly important for Russia’s contemporary culture and politics which are difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile: The revolutions meant the end of the rule of the Romanovs for whom there is admiration again today, and they plunged the country into chaos and civil war. At the same time, the revolutions gave birth to the Soviet Union which is remembered rather positively by a lot of Russian citizens.

Vladimir Medinskii, the Russian Minister of Culture, is one of the few leading Russian politicians who has put forward an interpretation of 1917. In February he gave a talk about 1917 at a conference. The conference title “February. Tragedy. Historical Lessons. 1917” already suggested the direction of the Minister’s interpretation. Indeed, Medinskii described the February Revolution as a negative juncture that broke with tradition and resulted in a complete breakdown of statehood. According to Medinskii, only a functioning state could solve a country’s problems, be it a republic or a monarchy. In his opinion, the tragic events unfolded because the different political forces could not come to an agreement and focussed instead on their own respective interests. Where something like this ends can be seen today. In Medinskii’s manuscript , which can be found online, there is an added reference to the contemporary situation in Ukraine without however spelling out the implied parallels in detail. Medinskii’s message is clear: whatever happens, the unity of the country must be maintained – especially today.

However, a closer look reveals that at least Russian academia and the cultural sector show an interest in 1917. Russia’s major historical museums are presenting or preparing special exhibitions about the revolutionary year. The same is true for expert conferences. The State Museum of Political History of Russia in St. Petersburg is showing ten different exhibitions dedicated to 1917 in its main building alone throughout 2017. It also presents an online calendar which each month introduces a new artefact linked to the revolutions of 1917. Since the end of February one also encounters an increasing number of publications about the revolutionary year in the Russian media, such as a photo gallery on the homepage of the daily newspaper Kommersant, a report on the question why the year 1917 does not seem to matter any more in 2017 in the journal Ogonek, and the elaborately produced TV-series “Revolution LIVE” shown on NTV in late February-early March 2017. Professionals working in the memory industry, academics, artists and the media are trying to anchor 1917 in the country’s calendar of remembrance. It remains to be seen which aspects of the events of 1917 the Russian political leadership will choose to emphasize.

Nina Frieß is Research Associate at ZOiS. She has recently published a book on the Stalinist Gulag in Russia's cultural memory.