Blasting Open the Continuum of History: Why Study the Russian Revolution?

ROSTA Window by Vladimir Mayakovsky

By Erica Edwards

Revolutions, as a concept, seize the human attention. A revolution is often laden with the regalia of palace intrigue, the impudence of popular protest, and are immortalized as paragons of heroism. La Liberté[1] thrusting the French tricolor into the sky while guiding the people, or the glittering chest of Simón Bolívar, El Liberator[2], riding on horseback through South America, define revolution in the consciousness of many. Rarely is the smattering of Bolshevik red on posters, or the fierceness of Vladimir Lenin’s stare in portraits and on statues, the first images that spring to mind; the Russia revolution of 1917 is not first on the list of famous revolutions for many outside of former Soviet states.

The Russian revolution is a fascinating revolution, and one worth study, because it was simultaneously very self-aware and achingly ignorant of itself. History played an alarming role in Russia and that is why it merits closer study.

The Marxist conception of how history, and particularly revolution, could be understood had a profound impact on Bolshevik ideology. Mark Steinberg in his recently-published The Russian Revolution, 1905-1921 wonderfully explains the link between a Marxist view of history and Bolshevik action during the years 1905 and 1921. Marxism, with its “totalizing claims to the truth and its reduction of history to economic forces,” (310) lends the human aspect of history to marginalization. It is that very detached perspective that allowed the Bolsheviks to justify the violence they committed during the Russian Revolution; it was the class war the Bolsheviks were fighting that made the “dictatorship and violence of the proletariat…not only necessary to overcome the bourgeoisie, but virtuous and just…” (322). According to Steinberg, the Bolsheviks embraced “violence and coercion as means to remake the world and advance history” (98), and utilized these tools as part of a “great and inevitable historical process, the ‘leap into the kingdom of freedom’ [in the words of Marx and Engels].” (99).

To create the narrative that one is the arbiter of history and to sacrifice the people of the present to further the goals of the future, creates an atmosphere rife with callousness for the sanctity of human life. It is almost inconceivable that people who seized power with the intention of bettering life for an underclass of people, could sacrifice those same people, for the cause of furthering ideology. I believe having an understanding of this Marxist view of history, and having the ability to critically recognize its short-comings, is what makes Steinberg an excellent historian. When Steinberg purposefully focuses on human narratives, or in his own words searches for “experience—for the complex mixtures of ideas, emotions, values, and ideals that shaped how people inhabited and acted in the world,” (351) he counteracts this clinical Marxist view of history. He refuses to divorce the people living in history from the forces that create history.

Where a Marxist view of history influenced the actions of the Bolsheviks in their present, the “dark weight of history on the present” that “defined the most important historical task of the revolution: to overcome [the legacy of ‘vicious Russian stupidity’] so that people can be truly free to ‘create new forms of life’…” (84-85) also defined 1917. The new forms of life that could, or would, be created were best imagined by the “futurists,” or as Steinberg calls them, “utopians.” Steinberg prefers the term “utopian” because he feels it is “a critical negation of that which merely is in the name of what should be, as a radical challenge to conventional assumptions about what is possible and impossible in the present…[italics in the original]” (7). The raw and anarchic idea of “messianic” time that thunders on and can be ultimately mastered by man, is best articulated politically in the views of Leon Trotsky and artistically in the works of Vladimir Mayakovsky.

Trotsky saw the revolution of 1917 as “the beginning of a new epoch of human history” (318). His idea that the revolution would be permanent and his rejection of the “narrow-minded ‘philistine utopianism’ that viewed the present as the best that reality will allow” (323) is what encouraged him to play the active part that he did in crafting Russia’s new future. The feeling that every second contributed to the concretion of the future, or in Trotsky’s own words, that feeling of the “step-by-step strengthening of the ground beneath our feet” (324) motivated him to redefine what human experience meant. In the words of Steinberg, Trotsky believed that working violently with the violent motion of time would “lead to a more heroic and transcendent movement” into the “kingdom of necessity” (324). In other words, it would shape the present in the same mold as the past, thus creating a future in the Marxist conception of the movement of time. To Trotsky it was worth it to gloriously “fight for the future, for that bright and radiant future when man, strong and beautiful, will master the drifting stream of history…” (311).

Where Trotsky saw the destruction of the past as the way to liberate the future, Mayakovsky also saw war as “a metaphor for the death of the old that would allow the birth of the new…[as the moment when] ‘the present will finally do away with itself and open up the lands of the men of the future’” (330). Mayakovsky’s exuberance at the prospect of throwing the vanguards of the Russian literary tradition, “Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, etc. etc. overboard from the Ship of Modernity [sic]” (Lawton 51); illustrates the futurist acknowledgment that though history laid the groundwork for the present, it needed to be dissolved to make way for the future. It was by throwing these precedents overboard, room could made for the “New Coming Beauty of the Self-sufficient (self-centered) Word” (Lawton 52). Initially, Mayakovsky viewed war and revolution as a cleansing of the present so that the “powerful people of the future” (331) can create something better.

Steinberg writes that “time has long been at the heart of modern utopian thinking,” that the pervasive idea that a new and better world is “located in another time rather than in a distant place” (336), this characterization of utopian thought lends it the visage of an odd escapism. It is an escapism not rooted in the urge to flee place, but to transport time. To possess the feeling of “the possibility of living differently than the present” (291) without idealizing the past, it such a fascinating intersection to investigate. Both Trotsky and Mayakovsky, in the years preceding and succeeding the Russian revolution of 1917, lived in that very intersection. They were two men that were very aware of the legacies left by those before them, and were eager to destroy their present (and thus the past) in order to forge new histories—histories that were uniquely their own, and by extension, uniquely Russia’s own.

In Boris Drayluk’s 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution, there is a short work of prose titled Future Prospects written by Mikhail Bulgakov. In Future Prospects Bulgakov inflicts upon the reader the haunting words, “All that remains is the future. An unknown, enigmatic future. / Indeed, what will become of us?…” (Dralyuk 209). Bulgakov’s characterization of a singular future as both “unknown” and “enigmatic” is stirring. He concurs that “indeed” there is a genuine uncertainness about the fate of Russia and its inhabitants; the sense of mourning and confusion bleeds through the text. I introduce this snippet of Bulgakov’s short work of prose because I feel it captures the spirit of the Russian revolution. The Russian revolution was insistent on redefining the past and creating a present that would result in a utopian future. When Bulgakov writes that “all that remains is the future” it is a beautiful summation of Bolshevik destruction; nothing is left of the past or present, but even the future is uncertain.

There was awareness of the past. There was awareness of the present. There was awareness of the future. However, there existed a lack of Bolshevik understanding of the past, which caused horrible atrocities to be committed in the present, and resulted in a disillusioned future as seen in Bulgakov’s quote. That is why the Russian revolution is important to study.

When we begin to think we unlocked the secrets of time and how the universe operates we begin to lose the curiosity and engagement with our present; be begin to lose sight of how our actions will affect those that have not yet been born. In our modern era, with its unprecedented technology and its easy diffusion of knowledge, we are at risk of falling into a trap of ignorance; of succumbing to the ignorant idea that we have risen above the mistakes of the past.

Works Cited

Dralyuk, Boris. 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution. London: Pushkin Press, 2016

Lawton, Anna, and Herbert Eagle. Russian Futurism through Its Manifestoes, 1912-1928. Cornell University Press. 1988

Steinberg, Mark D. The Russian Revolution, 1905-1921. Oxford University Press, 2017

[1] Meaning ‘liberty’ in French

[2] Meaning ‘the Liberator’ in Spanish

Erica Edwards is a freshman majoring in History and Economics.

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