CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The Russian Revolution that “shook the world,” in the words of the title of a famous book, turns 100 this year.
How was it to live it? Experiencing both the chaos and the possibility of 1917, as well as the crucial years before and after?
University of Illinois the story teacher Mark Steinberg channels a great diversity of this experience into “The Russian Revolution, 1905-1921.” His new anniversary book tells the story of those years with a focus on “people who think and feel history as it unfolds in their own lives.”
Steinberg begins with the “Spring of Freedom”, a flowering of open thought and discussion following the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II in early 1917. This marked the first of two revolutions actually that year, the Bolshevik Revolution in autumn.
Steinberg wants the reader to imagine walking the streets, going to demonstrations and meetings, listening to speeches, talking with people, and reading whatever is available – absorbing the “flow of words” of the time.
Above all, Steinberg wants to imagine asking the people there what they mean by “freedom,” the idea that everyone said defined the revolution.
He then returns to a broader history of the period, beginning with the 1905 revolution a dozen years earlier, passing through the civil war which ended four years later. He treats these years as an era of related crises, upheavals and possibilities, including possibilities for democracy.
Even here, however, Steinberg provides two perspectives: that of the historian looking back and that of the journalists writing at the time. “I love how journalists try to tell the story without knowing where it’s going,” he said. “They live and experience the present.”
The following chapters present varied perspectives from a variety of locations – towns and streets, peasant women in the countryside, ethnic writers and activists from the Russian Empire, and a “rebel trio” who dedicated their lives to the revolution and the construction of a new society.
Steinberg said he knew multiple perspectives were a risk, that they muddled the narrative. But he does not want to keep it simple; he wants readers to “delight in complexity,” he said.
Through these voices of experience, the revolution may appear to have been a “madhouse,” as students in a recent class observed, Steinberg said. “But when we spend enough time in this madhouse, we start to realize there’s a method to everyone’s madness, there’s a reason for what they say and do. Confusion is actually insight.
Individuals’ experiences also bring readers into the story, Steinberg said. “For most people, for most students, what makes history important is how it connects to human life, to their own life.”
Steinberg said we shouldn’t be surprised that Russia is doing little this year to publicly remember the 1917 revolution – even as anti-government street protests have erupted in recent weeks and months. When Russian President Vladimir Putin talks about revolution, he focuses on disorder, chaos and conflict, all of which he hates, Steinberg said. Even the fall of Nicholas II, in Putin’s mind, “could have been a bad thing”.
Many Americans may not want to remember the revolution either, because it led to decades of communism and totalitarian rule in Russia, as well as the Cold War and lingering tensions with the United States. The perception also persists that Russians by nature only want a strong leader and have little interest in democracy.
Steinberg, however, sees Russian history from 1917 as a universal story in which human beings in an unfree and highly unequal society say “enough is enough” and pursue ideals of freedom, justice, and equality, even ‘they aren’t up to it. The 1905 revolution brought democratic reforms which Nicholas II then gradually reversed, he said. The Bolsheviks originally espoused many radically democratic ideals, but abandoned them for power.
Steinberg also attempts, in his last chapter, to reclaim the idea of utopia, often decried in the wake of revolution and communism. Rather than seeing it only in negative terms – fanciful ideas imposed on society, with catastrophic results – he argues for seeing it as a “boldness of imagination”, using examples from his “trio of rebels”.
In this way, the utopia “is not fancy, but really says that our minds are sometimes too limited by the reality around us to realize that the world could be different, could be very different. It could be as it should be, not as it is.