Russian Revolution at 100: Inconvenient for Putin?

Story Highlights

The Russian Revolution began on International Women’s Day in 1917

A liberal government ruled for 8 months before communism took hold


A hundred years ago, on Wednesday, a food shortage in Russia sparked riots in the streets of the capital Petrograd and sparked the Russian Revolution, a series of events that would change the course of world history.

But those same streets in what is now St. Petersburg have been quiet all week – there are no plans for the kind of parade or flyover staged for World War II commemorations, and certainly no president. to honor the dead.

Indeed, 1917 is a difficult year in the history of the Kremlin, especially of President Vladimir Putin, who exudes nostalgia for the glory days of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, but prefers not to remind his people the power of dissent.

“The Russian government will not mark the 100th anniversary,” said Sam Greene, director of the Russian Institute at King’s College London.

“They are trying to build a narrative of uninterrupted power and stability. So something like 1917 is an uncomfortable fact that doesn’t fit that.

The Russian Revolution took place in two parts – the one that started in March is known as the February Revolution, as the old Julian calendar said the month should be. It was the best-known October Revolution that brought the Bolsheviks to power and ushered in Communism under the leadership of Vladimir Lenin.

There are concerns, however, that this first phase is being lost sight of in Russian consciousness – many Russians, especially young people, believe that the country has gone from an empire under tsarist rule straight to communism under Lenin, according to the journalist and author Mikhail Zygar.

Zygar is behind the 1917 digital project, which tells the stories of the revolution in real time, in blog form and on social media through hundreds of historical figures.

“We tried to present it as if everyone during the Russian Revolution had a Twitter account. So it’s kind of like following the revolution live on a Facebook news feed,” Zygar said.

“Young Russians don’t read books the same way older Russians do, so we bring these stories to them on their mobile phones in a way they can understand.”

The website launched in Russian in November And one English site followed in Januaryand has since intensified until the March 8 protests.

The project will follow the revolution throughout the year, but Zygar wants to highlight the period after the February revolution, when Russia was ruled by a provisional government. It only lasted eight months, but many historians say it was the most liberal period in the country’s history.

This government abolished the death penalty, granted women the right to vote and upheld freedom of expression and freedom of the press.

“It is very important for the younger generation to know about this part of Russian history, this democratic republic that only existed for eight months, and the tragic end of this first Russian democracy,” he said.

“It’s 100% non-fiction,” Zygar said, adding that he and his team have been collecting diaries, letters, telegrams and articles over the past year.

But Project 1917 isn’t just a history lesson – it’s a colorful celebration of Russian artists, intellectuals and philosophers of the time and a reminder of the internationality of the city of St. Petersburg.

The Russian Revolution began when female protesters celebrated International Women’s Day in the streets of Petrograd, calling for bread and peace as World War I raged and food stocks ran low. Others joined them and 100,000 people soon found themselves on the streets, clashing with the police.

This is reflected in the 1917 project, when French poet Maurice Paleologue “live-published” on Wednesday that there was “a great commotion in Petrograd all day”.

“Processions marched through the main streets. Several times the crowd shouted ‘Bread and peace!’ “, he wrote.

A week later, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated, ending more than 300 years of autocratic tsarist rule, leaving the Russian Empire to crumble.

Vladimir Lenin led the Bolshevik October Revolution and became the leader of the Communist Party.

After the eight-month reign of the Provisional Government, Vladimir Lenin’s Bolsheviks seized power and renamed themselves the Communist Party and formed the Soviet Union. And after Lenin’s death, Josef Stalin became the nation’s leader, as well as one of the most brutal dictators in modern history – tens of millions are said to have been killed during his three-decade rule.

But his government also brought stability to Russia and led it to victory in World War II, parts of the history that President Putin prefers to remember.

“This government has tried to portray itself as the heir to both the Soviet Union and Czarist Russia,” Greene said.

“But he doesn’t want to explicitly take sides in the revolution. If he says it was or was not justified, he will make friends with some and alienate many others.

Putin has sent mixed messages about his feelings about communism, but his love for a powerful Russia is clear. He described the dissolution of the union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century and in 2000 his government revived the Soviet national anthem, with revised lyrics.

A committee responsible for marking historical events in Russia said it was planning low-key cultural events and a conference towards the end of the year.

Committee member Konstantin Mogilevsky of the Russian Historical Society said they preferred to view the revolution, the ensuing civil war and the formation of the Soviet Union as a whole, as scholars had agreed there was several years old when the curriculum was overhauled in 1917. .

Last year, members of the Russian Communist Party celebrated the 99th anniversary of the October Revolution.

He said there was no need to mark the beginning of the revolution, nor to celebrate the eight-month caretaker government as a period of liberalism and democracy.

“I wouldn’t throw the term ‘liberalism’ around this short period. There was an Imperial Duma that functioned in Russia before 1917 for 11 years and no law could be passed without its approval,” he said, referring to the Russian parliament.

“A few months under the Russian Provisional Government does not compare to this.”

Ignoring the February Revolution can be a politically savvy decision – according to a poll conducted by the Levada Center in January, 43% of 1,600 respondents said they had never considered the importance of the February Revolution or that it was “hard to tell” what they thought. Only 13% said it was a gradual step forward.

And Zygar’s fear that many young Russians are unaware of these events is not unfounded.

Yan Bakanov, a 17-year-old computer science student at St. Petersburg State Technological Institute, admits he knows nothing at all about the February Revolution.

Asked about the impact of revolutions in Russia, he replied: “Revolutions have both sides. I would say that they had neither positive nor negative impact.