By Stephen Norris
In March 1917, Mikhail Serafimovich, a private in the Russian cavalry, composed a poem that proclaimed “Long live free Russia,” a sentiment that “floods my soul” and “stills my heart.” Serafimovich was overjoyed with the news that Nicholas II had abdicated his throne and that Russia would cease to be an autocracy and could instead become “free.” That same month, A. Zemskov, a factory worker who had deserted from the army, wrote to the new Russian Minister of Justice, Alexander Kerensky, to complain that “freedom” had not really come to Russia and that the new government was still “founded on coercing its own subjects.”
By October 1917, Zemskov was vindicated. The Bolshevik Party seized power from the ineffective Provisional Government on October 24. A worker named Frants Kontaka wrote to the Bolshevik paper Pravda that he and his comrades at the Obukhov Metal Works had turned away from Kerensky and toward the Bolsheviks, noting that workers from his factory “were the first to come out with weapons in hand” in order to support the October Revolution “to their last drop of blood.” At the same time, however, a “former Bolshevik” from Rostov wrote Vladimir Lenin that he had once believed in him and his promises but now believed he had “established a Nicholas kind of freedom,” closing by writing “I curse you and all your comrades in the Council of Usurpers and Betrayers of our native land.”
These experiences—four of thousands that could be invoked—illustrate the passions, complexities, and voices of 1917. For some people living through the changes that brought an end to the old regime in February and the establishment of the world’s first socialist system in October, these were days of excitement, a chance to remake virtually everything. Others viewed these events with fear, believing them to be “cursed days” (as the writer Ivan Bunin called them). Still others welcomed the abdication of Nicholas II but fought to prevent the Bolsheviks from seizing power. As the voices above attest, words such as “freedom,” “liberty,” “tyranny,” “homeland,” and “honor” served as weapons in the battles for meaning in 1917. The prominent historian Mark Steinberg has argued that “modern revolutions are exceptionally loquacious events,” and Russia proved no exception. Words, he writes, gave the events and actions of 1917 “shape and substance.”
As we approach the centenary of this watershed year in Russian and world history, the Havighurst Center will be sponsoring a series of lectures and events dedicated to rethinking 1917. I will be teaching our fall colloquium on the subject “Russia in War and Revolution.” Students will hear lectures from six prominent scholars and will be reading the words of participants in the dramatic events of 1916 and 1917. They will also be writing their own words that try to reinterpret the meanings of the revolutions, working with objects in King Library’s Havighurst Special Collections. Next fall, Scott Kenworthy will teach the colloquium on the Russian Revolution and will continue these engagements. This fall students in Venelin Ganev’s class will also explore the political ramifications of 1917 in his course on communism and Soviet politics. Other curricular efforts connected to 1917, to highlight two, will take place in Benjamin Sutcliffe’s class on Russian literature, where students will read Boris Pasterrnak’s masterpiece, Doctor Zhivago, and in Irina Anisimova’s class “Sci-Fi between East and West,” where students will read Evgeny Zamyatin’s dystopic vision of 1917, We. Look for posts on this blog from students writing about these topics.
While we reexamine the history and culture of 1917, we will also pay attention to pressing issues of the present and the past, connecting 1917 to 2017. Dan Prior’s course on Eurasian nomads reminds us all of the complex histories and cultures of peoples the Bolsheviks sought to transform. Venelin Ganev’s spring 2017 colloquium series, “Eastern Europe and the European Union: Politics in the Post-Expansion Era,” will explore the issue of EU ascension in parts of the former Soviet Union, allowing students to engage with controversial and complex problems that stem in part from the collapse of the system established in 1917. We are also welcoming two new postdoctoral fellows to the Center, Emily Channell-Justice and Elana Resnick, who will both be teaching courses in Anthropology and International Studies that explore these connections between the past and the present.
Finally, the Center will sponsor film screenings, lectures, events, and other programing related to 1917/2017. Our annual Young Researchers Conference, coordinated by Benjamin Sutcliffe with help from Zara Torlone, will take place in Cuma, Italy, and will allow young scholars a chance to engage further with the centennial while also seeing some of the sites associated with the “cradle of revolution,” Capri, where Gorky, Lenin, Bogdanov, and others hatched plans for revolution and dreamed of change. Stay tuned for more details as they develop and please join us in what promises to be an exciting year at the Havighurst Center!
The quotes come from the wonderful collection edited by Mark Steinberg entitled Voices of Revolution, 1917, published in 2001 by Yale University Press. Professor Steinberg spoke at Miami in 2012. His new history of the Russian Revolution will appear with Oxford University Press in spring 2017.