Category Archives: Past and Present

A Snapshot from the Cultural Cold War

The official pamphlet of the American Exhibition in Moscow.

By Matthew Kline

The Cold War was a strategic and ideological battle between the superpowers of the Soviet Union and the United States that took place in the aftermath of World War II. Pitting Leninist Communism against Western Capitalism, it divided the world into spheres of influence, with a “Third World” battleground from which the superpowers vied for influence. Nowhere was this battle for ideals was more apparent than during the American-Soviet Exhibitions of 1959. Held in New York City and then Moscow, this exchange of cultural, scientific, and educational material between the superpowers represented the first direct contact between American agents and the local population without Soviet media interference and vice versa. While overshadowed by the more tense events in the Cold War such as the Korean War and the Cuban Missile Crisis, the 1959 American-Soviet Exhibitions were nonetheless vital in understanding the complex nature of the tenuous nature between the two superpowers.

John Thomas, a Russian-speaking guide working in the RAND Corporation’s Social Science Division, served at the Exhibition in Moscow and left an eyewitness account of his time.  His 100-page account was recently found at Miami’s Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies among other materials as the Center prepared for a move to new space.  Thomas’s account provides an intriguing, first-person snapshot of the cultural Cold War:  he writes at one point that “it was as if the Soviet people had saved their questions for some forty years and at last had a chance to ask them.”

Thomas worked at the display of voting machines, which he jokingly wrote “might have been considered one of the hardship posts.”  One of the first items that Thomas remarks on is the cordial nature of the conversations between the Americans and the Soviets, a warm surprise to him at the time, particularly after tickets went on general sale, allowing non-elites to visit. Thomas provides details of the American exhibit, including a contemporary kitchen complete with popular food brands and appliances (this kitchen would later feature in the famous impromptu debate held in front of it between Nikita Khrushchev and VP Richard Nixon). U.S. officials wanted to place an emphasis on everyday American life, illustrating to the Soviet people of the lavish lifestyle of the west. Thomas noted the curiosity of the general public, most of them completely unfamiliar with American culture due to Soviet censorship. Swarms of people of all types from across the Soviet Union, from Kiev to Leningrad came to view the exhibition, and by the end of the presentation more than two million people had witnessed it. The wide array of individuals in attendance was highlighted by clothing from all across the Soviet Empire, and the broken Russian speaking abilities of Soviet minorities also attested to the wide makeup of attendees.

Thomas also remarked on the social machinations living under Soviet rule: the Soviet government apparently sent activists to humiliate the guides at an exhibit of the voting machines where he was stationed, ostensibly to discredit the democratic system that was alien to Soviet Russia. Aggressive in nature, this didn’t prove to be the norm as many people came with genuine questions of American society, such as queries about living standards, education, and the image of Russia itself in the United States. The sharp divide in the societies between the two countries was made readily apparent when Soviet citizens discussed passports and the freedom of movement throughout the country, which proved to be much more restricted in the Soviet Union as opposed to the United States. The discussions between the Americans and Soviets during the exhibition illustrated that while they were enemies, both sides had many of the same values and interests, highlighted by the mutual concern of racial discrimination, the dislike of government overreach, and religious interests. Thomas articulates this as much by writing “some non-Russian visitors, such as Kazakhs and Uzbeks, inquired about domination of national minorities by the national dominant group in the U.S.” By the end of the exhibition, both sides were able to put a real face on their adversary unhindered by nationalist propaganda.

Overall, the exhibition was a success, allowing not only the leaders of the two hostile nations to interact on friendlier terms, but also allowing the general public of both countries to learn about their respective cultures. Thomas’ excellent summary of the exhibition also gives us a glimpse of life in the Soviet Empire, how one American encountered it, and how he perceived its more restrictive society. It was also significant for being the first meaningful step at peaceful coexistence, as former Moscow correspondent for NPR Gregory Feifer notes the exhibition “marked an iconic episode of detente at the height of the Cold War.” This sharp contrast between the two superpowers, while successful in beginning the first steps to establishing a dialogue in the Cold War, displayed that mutual understanding would still be far off. Proving this, Thomas concludes his account by discussing all of the ways the Soviets attempted to discredit or dampen support for the exhibition, such as arguing with exhibition guides, criticizing the integrity of the American set-up, and even artificially limiting the ticket sales for the event. While this often-obscured chapter of the Cold War was one of the first real attempts at peace, tensions would still continue to increase before real diplomacy would take hold.

 

Recreating a Propaganda Room

Honors students enrolled in Dr. Stephen Norris’s Russian Revolution class transformed the Upham Room in Upham Hall into a propaganda room.  Half of the students, and half of the room, took the form of early Soviet propaganda spaces.  The other half, inspired by a photograph in Miami’s Havighurst Special Collections of Russian emigres, took the form of an emigre club.

Émigré Propaganda Room

By Cameron Devitt

The first stage of putting together any type of propaganda, advertisement, or persuasive material is first understanding your audience and the argument you want to make. In crafting our emigré propaganda room we determined our target audience would be the emigré population in France as the image presented to us of the Gallipoli Society in class suggested. Then, we thought about the historical platform of the emigrés during the Russian Revolution. They aimed to restore the old order by crushing the Bolsheviks and their Red Army and freeing the Tsar. Thus, one could say that our argument was that through our propaganda room we hoped to persuade individuals of the cultural superiority of the old Russian history as well as convince them that the white army and our cause was still powerful with potential for success. Accordingly, we hoped they would be more likely to support the cause as they had in history.

Since the monarchy was symbolic of Russia’s old history, it became a vital symbol to the white army’s platform and propaganda. To blatantly emphasize this, an incredibly large photograph of Tsar Nicholas II in the middle of the propaganda room reminded viewers that to escape the chaos and insecurity with Bolshevism, they needed to restore order as it was. Likewise, a Double-Headed Eagle coat of arms used by the royal family suggested the deep Russian history that was being destroyed. Finally, the Russian flag was symbolic of the historical Russian spirit. When looking though sources to put in the room in special collections, it was interesting to see the extent to which the monarchy played such an extravagant but large role of the people’s lives and for me it reawakened the sense of urgency the émigrés must have felt to restore order amidst chaos.

Equally important propaganda to the emigré cause was white army propaganda. Because the white army quickly became the more decentralized of the two armies, it was important to convince people that there was still hope for the possibility of returning to a secure country. Thus, portraits of Anton Denekin, Alexander Kolchak, Pyotr Nikolayevich Wrangel, and Nikolai Yudenich were meant to reassure the emigrés of their strong leaders. Likewise, pamphlets such as Who Is Denekin? and Who is Kolchak? were available if people wanted to learn more about these leaders and their backgrounds. In addition, pictures such as the Nurses of Kornilov’s Army (1918), the Group of Kornilovtsy (“Followers of Kornilov”), and the pictures of Colonial Schleglov (part of Kornilov’s Army) and General Bazaravich (a military agent in Serbia) served to remind émigrés of the network of people supporting their cause and acted as propaganda showing that the white army was doing well. The designers of the propaganda room in Paris understood the importance of maintaining hope and positivity among the émigrés for continued support and in our replica we tried to do the same.

In the same vein, communication was very important. Since the émigrés were not living in Russia where they could walk out their door to purchase a newspaper about the daily events, they created their own newspapers such as Voennaia Byl., “La Sentinelle,” and Posledniye Novosti which presumably they may have had access to in propaganda rooms. Either way, these newspapers were powerful in keeping the émigrés informed and their goals coherent. White poetry, like red poetry was also key in evoking feelings towards the revolution. Poetry has the ability to connect with people on an emotional level and keeping people attached to the white cause was vital. Thus, we included a white poetry book in the propaganda room and two white propaganda posters suggesting the importance of the white cause.

In creating this propaganda room, I think we reignited the spirit, the tension, and the chaos of the Russian Revolution. I can only imagine the challenges that must have come with trying to manage an army outside of the country you are fighting in with the lack of accessible communication. Despite their ultimate failure, their dedication to the cause is evident through the poems we read and the newspapers published. It must’ve been extremely frustrating to work so hard at protecting an old Russian spirit that so essential to your prior life experiences and yet see it slowly crumble at the expense of the “newness” of the Bolshevik socialist experiment.

Mark Steinberg, in the conclusion of his The Russian Revolution, suggests a theme about the revolution in the present that has helped me to best understand why the propaganda room project was significant to my learning and self-growth. He writes,

 

It is not the work of the historian to predict the future- the past’s futures are hard enough to predict. Yet, somehow in our times we see a remarkable number of people across the world, mostly young, acting as if they believe that one must venture beyond the limits of life as it is to create life as it ought to be…These dreamers challenge all they judge to be negative in the world…and, not least, resist what we tell them is impossible to achieve. (356)

To me, creating this propaganda room was an act of empathy. By forcing me to act as an émigré in the time of the Russian Revolution, I was able to gain insight into the emotional connection all Russians had to the revolution, but especially the connections of those abroad. As someone who is fascinated by entrepreneurial spirit, I admire the ownership the large proportion of Russian’s took in trying to help create their own destiny in this time of disorder as evident in the newspapers and poems. They “resisted” the “impossible” and took a stance. I believe this stance speaks to both their brilliance and lack of identity; brilliance in the action they took and failure in their ability to recognize that radical change has only the slimmest change of long-term success in its first trial. Of course, this failure is understandable due to the oppression they faced and looking at the Russian Revolution through the lens of a first year college student has made me all the more grateful for the emphasis my high school English courses put on exploring self-identity. Thus, the most valuable opportunity the creation of this room gave me was a chance to connect and think more deeply about the spirit of the ordinary actors of the Revolution. While learning about Lenin and Kolchak and Stalin is and Denikin is vital to the context of the revolution, as someone who is still trying to discover and mature the future path of my life, it is neat to look at the 1917-1921 actors and see how their stories are remarkably different, yet remarkably similar to my own. Although I’d never hope to experience the brutality of the Russian Revolution, there is something to be said all of these people trying to find their voice in the wake of freedom to try and make an impact. After all, as John Green said, “What is the point of living if you don’t at least try to do something remarkable?”

 

Recreating a Soviet Space

By Jacob Bruggeman

In the opening pages of his new book, The Russian Revolution: 1905-1921, Mark Steinberg writes: “I want to imagine we can walk through the streets during the ‘springtime of freedom’ [of 1917]: go to the demonstrations and meetings, listen to speeches, talk with people in public […] Above all, I want to imagine we can ask people what they meant by that […] idea that everyone insisted defined the revolution: ‘freedom’.”[1] I would posit that Steinberg’s most recent addition to the historiography succeeds in painting for readers a better picture of the past; yet, for all Steinberg’s efforts, is it always impossible for people of the present to fully understand events from a century ago. Steinberg’s history of the Russian Revolution, like all histories, provides a series of lenses through which we see a recreation of the past fashioned from its sources or “traces,” if you will. A different way of understanding the past is to act it out, to attempt to place oneself in the mindset of our far-back-in-time forerunners; to engage the past by recreating it, not through abstractions in prose, but through informed actions. Through creating our Propaganda Room for class, we engaged with the past in an all-to-often rejected vehicle for learning history: hands-on activities. In so doing, my group—that is, the group representing the Bolsheviks—was forced to grapple with the sense of authorship, newfound freedom, and utter uncertainty felt by Bolsheviks in 1917.

The Propaganda Room was split down the middle to allow for both Bolshevik and anti-Bolshevik propaganda rooms, or half-rooms, to be constructed. Our side of the room had many moving parts: there was a banner, posters, Suprematist artwork, excerpts from literature, mass-produced pamphlets, a portrait of Lenin and flag dedicated to his everlasting life, and countless reproductions of Bolshevik propaganda cartons and images (one perk of being on the “right side of history” is an abundance of sources to work with). Stripped of their independent historical contexts, each piece of propaganda in the room carried is own historical gravity, informed by the histories we have explored through class, and its own emotional aura, moving viewers in ways unique to their understanding, or lack thereof, of what we have learned. The room, then, was a sort of amalgam of Bolshevik propaganda, each piece plucked from different places, different points throughout the “springtime of freedom,” and different individuals’ imaginations of what was to come for Russia. As such, our half of the Propaganda Room lacked the cogency and coherency of a museum exhibit; however, in my view, this was for the better.

As Steinberg notes in his book, Walter Benjamin observed that human history contains the possibility “of a ‘springtime’,” and that revolutions, when they occur, are one of humanity’s “strongest expressions of […] desire, vision, and possibility.”[2] I see an interesting alignment between our Propaganda Room project and Steinberg’s argument about the Russian Revolution: as noted earlier, our construction of the Propaganda Room reflects our effort to engage the past through acting it out, yet, in acting as Bolshevik revolutionaries, we felt no compulsion to order our room in any particular fashion; therefore, we voiced “desire[s]” and “vision[s]” for the room with an anarchistic disregard for the contemporary conventions of presenting traces of the past as is done in museums. Instead, we built our Propaganda Room with a random blend of artifacts and artwork, signifying a reconceptualization of time, which, as Steinberg suggests, often results from revolution. Indeed, the unpredictability with which we picked traces of the past for presentation the Propaganda Room speaks to the how, as Steinberg points out, “revolutions “blast open the continuum of history” […] and allow humanity to “leap in the open air of history,”” thereby transforming history into “radical possibility.”[3]

In a world of “radical possibility” the only impossibility can be a singularity of meaning, and so it would be hard to argue that our Propaganda Room had a single thrust, for there were many meanings which could be drawn from the disparate races of the past in the room. As mentioned earlier, many of our traces of the past came from very different contexts, and so they can be said to have different purposes. On one wooden panel, we posted two poems by Vladimir Mayakovsky, and these works represented the Russian Symbolists’ eschatological vision of “the dreary, rationalistic, thoroughly corrupt world […] [being] swept away by a destructive, “purifying” fire”;[4] yet directly under these poems were piece of propaganda calling upon Russian to engage with industry, and therefore maintain—at least to some extent—the time’s industrial order. The divergent meanings of our traces of the past resulted in each panel, or even each piece on each panel, having its own atmosphere of meaning, its own thrust of propagandizing. Furthermore, a piece of Suprematist art I made, which sat to the panel at the right of the Mayakovsky poems, depicted the sense of dissimilar meanings in the Russian Revolution through triangles colliding with one another, and so, in another odd parallel, may even reflect heady theory interpretation of the room. In this way, the room mimics the cacophony of voices during the Russian Revolution, each with their own “desire[s]” and “vision[s],” and thus demonstrates the utility of learning history through a physical engagement with it.

[1] Steinberg, Mark D. The Russian Revolution, 1905-1921. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford UP, 2017. Print. Pg. 15.

[2] Steinberg, Mark D. The Russian Revolution, 1905-1921. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford UP, 2017. Print. Pg. 17.

[3] Steinberg, Mark D. The Russian Revolution, 1905-1921. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford UP, 2017. Print. Pg. 17

[4] Dralyuk, Boris. 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution. London: Pushkin, 2016. Print. Pg. 50.

 

History in These Times

John Singelton Copley, Portrait of Mrs. John Stevens, 1770-72.

By Jacob Bruggeman

Devotees to the study of history are quickly becoming a bygone breed.

In early June, I was honored to be one of fifteen undergraduate participants, a group of that bygone breed, in the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History’s 2016-2017 History Scholar Program, through which I was flown out to New York City and housed at New York University with the fourteen other participants in the program.

The program’s length is just short of a week, and each day we engaged with several preeminent American historians, whose myriad specialties ranged from women’s roles in the War for Independence, Lincoln’s life, to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s naval policies. The visiting scholars included Richard Brookhiser, Carol Berkin, Kenneth Jackson, Mae Ngai, David Blight, Martha Hodes, and Thomas Heinrich.

This year’s History Scholar cohort, hailing from universities, public and private, scattered across the continental United States, represented a near comprehensive scope of academic training, ideological commitments, and backgrounds.

Yet, in the face of our deep differences, we formed a cohesive group, each of us dedicated to the preservation, understanding, and consistent reevaluation of others’ interpretations, or ‘histories’, of the past. Indeed, our in-class discussions—some of them growing out of the designs of the visiting scholars’ syllabi, many more being approached organically, often being framed in the tumult of our current political climate—were dominated by the cohort thinking through the contrast between constructed narratives and reality.

To make clear the conclusion of the above paragraph, let me share with you an example from the week.

Carol Berkin of the City University of New York gave a presentation on “Women in the Revolutionary War,” the mere title of which contradicts the normative historical narrative of the American Revolution. Indeed, one could easily argue, as some historians have, that the United States’ origins are shrouded in collective mythology, one that excludes the women whose efforts were essential to the winning of the Revolutionary War, focusing instead on the ‘great men’ of the era: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and the list goes on.

While there has been a steady winnowing of the number of historians whose principle means of understanding the past is through the deeds of ‘great men’—which is, to be frank, tantamount to a gendered political history—I would argue that the average citizen still understands American History as a story shaped only by men such as Washington. This understanding of the Revolutionary Era, of our past as Americans, is not so much wrong as it is critically incomplete.

Many of the Founding Fathers relied upon their wives’ efforts maintain order in home, on the farm, and all the while care for the family; in other words, the domestic, that sphere of communitas to which most women of the era were relegated. Here come to mind the dynamics of the Adams Household, in which John Adams required Abigail’s counsel and reassurances as much as her hours spent doing the wash, cooking, and caring for the children. Berkin attempts to make more people aware of the contributions of women such as Abigail Adams through one of her books, Revolutionary Mothers.

              Women such as Abigail Adams, women in high places, were not the only women who dedicated their lives to the Revolution. As Berkin noted during our lecture, women across race and class engaged in “political acts of heroism throughout the War,” often funding the War effort itself through its first (and massive) public fundraising campaigns. Women of the era, Colonial women, also moved into many of the vocational roles once occupied by their husbands, whose energies were being harnessed on the warfront, not in the homestead. Colonial women supported the War and maintained the home at the same time, often working hours on end, domestic work always being renewed ad infinitum.

The acts of women in the War—those from New Englander or Virginian elites to those of the common Colonial woman—are oft-forgotten in historical narratives, and certainly left out of our collective mythology of the War.

This lecture challenged the constructed narrative of the American Revolutionary War, instead presenting the realities of women’s contributions to the American Founding, thus reassembling a new narrative of the War—a narrative much truer to the efforts of women to win the War, while still acknowledging the essential contributions of the ‘great men’.

Here we see the power of history to reshape our own reality, to disassemble our understanding of particular people, places, and periods in the past, perhaps even the very foundation of our understanding, from the pieces of our understanding, conceiving, with the Historian’s help, a new image of that person, place, or period in the past.

Each student in the cohort cherishes different moments of American History, but each of us recognizes that stewarding the past is not a zero-sum game, and that attempting to comprehend our past, regardless of the particularities of a certain period, place, or person, is a worthwhile endeavor—indeed, and endeavor upon which rests the stability of our modest Republic.

In times such as these, when constructed narratives about race, gender, and politics seem to contradict our lived experiences, our realities, it is necessary to pull from the shelves the history books. In doing so, we may revisit the past, and thus inform the present, through others’ written interpretations, challenging, if we must, decades-old, oppressive regimes of truth, or even days-old ‘alternative’ realities.

If you are a history student, I highly recommend applying to the program. Through engaging American History, the visiting scholars, and likeminded students, you just might make studying history more interesting, encourage those in your social circles challenge narratives of and then reinterpret the past, and, just maybe, save the Republic.

Remembering Revolution

Note:  Students in Stephen Norris’s Spring 2017 class, Introduction to Russian and Eurasian Studies, participated in a final role-playing exercise that asked them to plan how best to remember the events of 1917 in Russia.  The students were divided into groups and given time- and location-specific guidelines in order for the entire class to see how different groups in different times and places would remember 1917.  One group was tasked with planning the official 1920 celebrations in Petrograd, a second with planning a counter-commemoration in 1924 France (among the Russian emigre community), a third with the 1927 official celebrations in Moscow.  The fourth and fifth groups took contemporary positions, with one planning an American art exhibit and another a Russian exhibit.  Below are sample reflections from students about this project.

Bolshevik Memories

By Mary Jane Fischer

As a Bolshevik party member in 1920, being tasked with designing a “people’s party” was invigorating because the event held so many possibilities. A people’s festival serves the purpose to re-educate the masses. The primary concern when designing the festival was focused on demolishing the “old” and celebrating the “new”. In other words the tsarist autocracy was to be scorched and the emerging Bolshevik government and its new policies and beliefs was to be acclaimed. We felt that this should be the most important takeaway from our festival.

As we learned in class, Anatoly Lunacharsky was appointed the People’s Commissar of Enlightenment, making him the head of our committee. When planning the festival, we wanted to make sure that our ideas lined up with his. On describing the people’s festivals, Lunacharsky said, “When organised masses walk in a procession to music, sing in one voice, or complete some great gymnastic exercises and dances– in short, if they hold their own kind of parade, but this parade is not military in nature but rather saturated by content that expresses ideological essence, hope, oaths and all other kinds of peoples’ emotions– when this is the case, then the remaining unorganized masses merge with the organized masses. The whole nation demonstrates its spirit in front of itself,”(Geldern). From this quote, we knew it was important to get the crowd involved, not just watching the processions, but partaking. It was important that they too were using their voices to sing and their feet to march. Only by partaking and being a part of movement would the people would feel like they had a say. They would feel like they had helped create this new government and it was something personal to them, something to be protected, cherished, and celebrated.

To get the people involved, we brainstormed various possible activities. There would be crafts for kids, where they could create suprematist artwork, which consists of relatively simple shapes that kids could conjure (that is not a dig at suprematism). As we learned in class, the Bolsheviks were especially concerned with educating children, as they would grow up to continue the Bolshevik vision and legacy. Additionally, there would be a contest for the “Best Dressed Nicholas II”. Essentially, the participants dress up in a way that ruthlessly makes fun of Nicholas II and his bourgeois lifestyle. The funniest costume wins. We also had the idea to commission Dmitri Moor, one of the Bolshevik’s most notable propaganda artists, to paint a mural where everybody could sign their name, pledging allegiance and showing their support to the new Communist government.

Art, especially the avant-garde, was a primary tactic used to educate the masses and invoke emotions that would support the rebellion. “Avant garde artists remade old streets, buildings, and statues with huge, brightly colored geometric constructions,” (Steinberg, 152). In the Uritsky Palace square, which is neoclassical in design, abstract (cubist) constructions and sculptures would be commissioned. These new structures would represent the new order of the Bolsheviks and would help the spectator visualize the difference between the old and the new and allowed them to physically experience it. Other visual representations of the Bolshevik’s victory over the oppressive tsarist government included a staged fight using actors to depict the struggle between the Red Army and the Tsar, poetry readings, film showings, and avant garde floats.

These people’s festivals were important to the success of the new government because the Bolshevik’s rise to power was not followed with immediate elation. According to Steinberg in The Russian Revolution, “most citizens, including workers, harbored ‘dark,’ ‘sorrowful,’ ‘melancholy’, ‘anxious,’ ‘confused,’ and ‘frightened’ feelings about the past and future,” (148). Despite these general feelings of despair, the festivals had the power to rally the masses and convince them of the good tidings that were headed their way. In order to raise moral and gain the support of the people, these festivals needed to portray the Bolshevik’s new order in a positive light, as something that is hopeful- and above all, infinitely better than the old tsarist government. And these festivals were widely successful. As Steinberg writes, “‘this was not the celebration of an anniversary, not the memory of effort and sacrifice, not the rapture of coming victory and creativity, but the joyful greeting of revolution, the happy laughter of the great masses that made the day of the Overturn great.’ And nothing less than the whole of human history, which had predetermined this revolution across the centuries, inspired the people’s festive delight. Insistent joyfulness would remain the hallmark of official street festivals,’ (152-3).

This assignment helped us to look at the revolution through the eyes of those who actually lived through the revolution themselves. By putting ourselves in their positions, we were forced to take into context what we have learned throughout the semester and apply it to realistic situations that these characters may have had to face in 1920.

 

Work Cited

 

Geldern, James Von. Bolshevik Festivals, 1917-1920. Berkeley: U of California P., 1993. Print.

Emigre Memories

By Aleah Sexton

Ah – my love for the Brothers of Russian Truth! Due to the events this evening, my confidence in our efforts to educate masses of the True and Honorable Russia is at its peak. Our plan to commemorate Old Russia has reached completion as our proposal was verbally announced to chapter. We will hold a Military Parade to the Eastern Orthodox Church where our script will be recited on the sacred steps. Our blessed Royal Family died through the onslaught of those damned Bolsheviks. Those imbeciles spread the propagation: “Peace, Love, and Bread” but this translates to: “War, Persecution, and Famine!” We acknowledge that Russia’s splendor is long past her. A new autocracy would unite Great Russia and free her from the enslavement of the Bolsheviks. The White Army rushed to revive our traditions. However, the socialist pigs deprived us of a fair war and instead raped our churches of its glory. They brainwash our children to believe in nothing but the “Socialist Revolution”. They destroy our history and fracture unions. Outside nations notice a new weak Russia and demand portions! These socialists are cowards are enemies and build a nation of lies. Our once illustrious motherland has been deprived of her glory and her memory is mocked. Brothers of the Russian Truth will change that perception! We educate Western Europe on the dangers of this socialist union. I swear on Tsar Nicholas II that the True Russia will be revived of her glory!

********

This commemorative project allowed me to take a different perspective on the Russian Revolution. In previous projects, I was a Bolshevik. I played curious about the promises of Lenin and pledged my loyalty to the New Russia. However, as a character of the White Émigré, I was given a new perspective on the revolution and forced to combat previous “realities”.

Before class, I researched the Brotherhood of the Russian Truth and learned they were a counter-communism organization. We decided that members of the Brotherhood of Russian Truth were to be the sole planners of the commemoration. The purpose of our memorial was to recollect on the beauty and stability of a strong Russia and stress the desolation and violence brought on by the actions of few men. We planned a parade of Russian military committees that reached the steps of the Orthodox Church. The Bolshevik ideology was credited as the foolish teachings of one man and his ability to appeal to masses was due to insanity. The commemoration was scheduled on May 18th to honor the Romanov lineage on Nicholas II’s birthday. For the declaration, we incorporated ornate and powerful language to tell the story of the once Great Russia for children and Parisians to easily understand. The motivation of the declaration was to unite as a movement and reminisce on a Russia of culture, wealth, peace, and organization. The storming of the Winter Palace that Bolsheviks highlight as the end of Old Russia was emphasized by our Brotherhood to be a devastating attack on tradition. I believe we accomplished the task of creating a commemoration to both celebrate and mourn Old Russia through our propagandist speech, Old Russian flag, Romanov crest, and distribution of White Army pamphlets.

This exercise allowed me to concentrate on a community that rejected the ideals of the socialist revolution. As mentioned above, I grew comfortable with my usual role of a peasant that supported Bolshevik efforts. However, as an émigré I recognized how the actions of the Red Army had an inverse effect on various factions. As written in Marc Raeff’s Russia Abroad, I was surprised to learn that the elite were not the only Russians that emigrated, but also “artisans, craftspeople, workers, employees, and a fair number of peasants” (5). It is important to note that some of the emigres fled not because they were hunted by the Bolsheviks, but simply because “they were committed to carrying on a meaningful Russian life. They were determined to … work as part and parcel of Russia, even in a foreign environment” (5). This further supports the belief that the Bolsheviks did destroy the Russia that many, even in the proletariat, cherished and respected. I learned that White movement created a society dedicated to merely preserving the Old Russia they believed in. This defied my previous assumption that emigres fled only because they were bourgeoisie. I realized that despite if one was a Bolshevik supporter or not, all commemorations acknowledged the change the socialists implemented on Russia – whether in mockery or celebration.

 

Final Role-Playing Reflection- Émigrés

By Cameron Devitt

One of the most interesting parallels that can be analyzed in terms of the Russian Revolution is the idea of Russia Abroad. In commemorating the events of October 1917 as émigrés, we hoped to capture the hopeful spirit of these abroad communities despite displacement from their homeland. Thus, one could say that our arguments through the commemorative exercise as émigrés in 1921, was to persuade the foreign community that the cultural superiority of old Russia is still alive, despite displacement, and to invoke the idea that with Lenin’s death, the potential of recentralizing the old Russia is still a possibility.

Since the émigrés were scattered throughout many cities in Europe, strong culture in terms of artistic, scholarly, and especially literary creations (which is my focus) were vital to keeping the old Russia alive in exile. In Russia Abroad, author Marc Raeff notes, “centers (of émigrés) formed wherever a significant number of scholarly and artistically productive émigrés found more or less stable circumstances where they could engage in creative work” (7). Through our work in putting together the propaganda room, we came across many periodicals that were equally important to our emigré commemorative exercise. Newspapers and journals such as as Voennaia Byl., “La Sentinelle,” and Posledniye Novosti kept the community alive and functioned well as a means of communication since, “Russia society in exile was relatively well educated, and it was primarily verbal in its cultural manifestations” (Raeff, 11). Therefore, these cultural items were of vital importance to the émigré community as the both served as a unifying measure and played a key role in maintaining the values associated with old Russia.

Of equal importance to the strong culture associated with Russia Abroad is the émigrés belief that they were living in temporary exile and would eventually return to their homeland when the state of old Russia was restored. Raeff states,

At first the exiles organized their lives to be ready to return and to reintegrate into the political, social, and cultural activities of their homeland the moment would be freed…they did not think of melding into the host societies…they wanted their children (whether born in Russia or abroad) to remain Russians and they feared their “denationalization” most. (4)

Likewise, in our speech commemorating the revolution we emphasized this idea by stating “But take great heart brothers, as the future looks bright to returning to our great country! Lenin, the great thief of Russia, has died. It has fractured into factions.” Hence, through pointing to the idea that Russia could soon be restored with Lenin’s death, we highlighted the émigrés certainty that the revolutionary uprising wouldn’t persist long-term and their belief that the factions fighting to control Russia would eventually give up in favor of the old order. Even though history didn’t unfold this way, in hindsight, the idea of Russia Abroad, and their citizens lack of integration into their host countries, is probably one of the greatest gifts to Russian culture; it allowed for the preservation of the old culture in a time where it would’ve been destroyed had it stayed in Russia under the Bolsheviks. It is the spirit associated with the émigrés situation and their fervent desire to retain their values as the years passed that allowed this vibrant culture to persist against dire circumstances.

Because the persistence of the Russia Abroad culture remained strong, it was also interesting to look at the diversity of people living in the abroad communities to gain a better understanding of how they retained their spirit for such a prolonged period. Despite my initial belief, it wasn’t only the wealthy monarchists who formed these Russian hubs abroad. Raeff states,

In the emigration, we not only find the former ruling elites…but also petite bourgeoisie, artisans, craftspeople, workers, and employees, as well as a fair number of peasants, especially if we consider the Cossack’s to be basically peasants. Nor was the Russian emigration homogeneous in its religious, ethnic, educational and economic makeup. (5).

This diversity is key in that it suggests that Russia Abroad was in fact representative of an entire society. Therefore, it was not foolish on their part to believe that they could bring back a fully-functioning society to Russia with all classes were represented (although probably not equally) despite their current decentralized situation.

To conclude, I will reference my favorite quote from Mark Steinberg’s, The Russian Revolution to summarize my understanding of the commemorative exercise. It reads,

It is not the work of the historian to predict the future- the past’s futures are hard enough to predict. Yet, somehow in our times we see a remarkable number of people across the world, mostly young, acting as if they believe that one must venture beyond the limits of life as it is to create life as it ought to be…These dreamers challenge all they judge to be negative in the world…and, not least, resist what we tell them is impossible to achieve. (356)

The émigrés valued their culture and saw the Russian Revolution and civil war as a disruption to a mostly positive existence. Thus, despite a relatively strong seizure of power by the Bolshevik’s, they “resisted” the idea that the might have their opportunity to revive their values within their homeland and pass on that sense of identity to the future generations; they retained hope for what they saw as a better life. In our commemorative effort of the Russian Revolution, I have come to understand both the extent to which Russia Abroad acted as true society and the great sense of hope that comes with being an exile desiring to return to a place where your beliefs feel valued. We all desire to “create life” as we believe “it ought to be” and the émigrés were no exception in trying to re-foster the life they desired for themselves and their loved ones.

 

Preserving the Vitality of the October Revolution—1927

By Mohinee Mukherjee

For years following the Revolutions of February and October 1917, Russians existed in a period of experimentation to determine how political efficacy and svoboda were imbedded in daily life, and how Marxism should influence the Russian state. By 1927, ten years had passed which also witnessed the end of World War I, the Russian Civil War, conflicts with and integration of non-Russian lands, War Communism, the New Economic Policy, and the death of Vladimir Lenin. At this time, the Bolshevik Party was safely in power in Russia but rapidly approaching the cusp of new leadership and an uncertain future. For that reason, the party sought to revitalize the energy of October 1917 and glorify it as a triumphant social revolution, to not only invigorate Russians into fully supporting the Bolsheviks but also stymie any opposition, especially to Joseph Stalin. My committee sought to commemorate the ten-year anniversary of the October Revolution in an all-encompassing, multi-media celebration that drew inspiration from workers and peasants, loathing of the Tsar and bourgeoisie, social movements, and foreign affairs. By reminiscing about the past and providing optimism for the future of Russia, we gained an understanding of what the Bolsheviks, known also as Soviets, truly valued about the Revolution, and how they influenced the memory of past events in attempts to galvanize Russians into unadulterated party support.

Prior to meeting as a group, I researched how the October Revolution was actually commemorated between 1918 and 1927. While there was consistent tension between autonomy of celebration and spontaneity from the Russians and government-approved celebration and order from the Soviets, the commemorations were “noteworthy for their scale” and exhibited “national strength and economic achievements” (Corbesero 125-126). Moreover, the Soviets enlisted different subcommittees to oversee revolutionary material through literature, art, film, theater, children’s programs, marches, and demonstrations (126, 130). These projects were completed with professionals, who had direct Soviet patronage, and amateurs, who performed at workers’ clubs around the country (125-126). Pairing that methodology with the diverse array of revolutionary topics, not limited to the February and October revolutions, heroes of socialist and communist movements both in Russia and abroad, and women’s rights, party officials effectively permeated revolutionary ideology to Russians (130). In this way, the Russians and the foreign visitors, who attended the commemorations, felt that they too were important components of the Revolution (136). In 1927, only three years after Lenin’s death, the Soviets faced intense pressure to “legitimize the new order and mold a new citizenry” to combat counterdemonstrations from revolutionary icons, such as Trotsky and other Left Opposition members (193, 197). The subsequent full-fledged celebration from this period inspired my group’s commemoration proposal.

In class, my group discussed the various media the Soviets utilized to vigorously recall the October Revolution, and we decided to use the same techniques to garner party support. Knowing that Stalin was a rising leader in 1927, we discussed whether to focus on promoting Stalin or the October Revolution, which did not have much activity from Stalin. We decided to plan some events that focused on the key figures of the October Revolution (such as Lenin, Trotsky, Kollontai, and Zinoviev) and other events that showcased Stalin as the new leader of the Soviet Union. In this way, we could appease both Stalin and the counterdemonstrators. One way we exhibited this compromise was by hosting a demonstration to re-create the storming of the Winter Palace with all Russians, where Stalin would act as the emcee to kick-off the event.

Beyond the demonstration, we decided to revitalize the Revolution through other channels. We wanted to heavily use cinema to showcase films about the Revolution, such as Eisenstein’s and Aleksandrov’s October, that would play both in the city and the countryside. We also would set up public art exhibitions that promoted Socialist Realist art, industrialization, Lenin, and communism. Per nostalgia about 1917, we would host readings and distribution of significant literature from that era. Our list was not limited to Lenin’s What Is to Be Done? and Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder, Kollontai’s Our Tasks, and Breshkovsky’s Grandmother of the Russian Revolution. Our children’s programs would enlist the Young Pioneers Choir of Lenin’s Komsomol to perform marches, calls to revolutionary solidarity, and The Anthem of Young Pioneers. In addition, the Komsomol would host activities to promote athleticism, discipline, and party loyalty. Our marches and parades across the country would promote revolutionary ideology and music that celebrate the overthrow of the Tsar and the Provisional Government, Lenin, and women’s rights, the last of which would mimic the bread riots on International Women’s Day in February 1917. In addition, for women in particular, we would showcase artwork that promoted Soviet women having agency in political, domestic, and workplace affairs. During this commemoration, we would invite foreign dignitaries and celebrities from all countries, as was done with John Reed in 1917 and Diego Rivera in 1927. We would give tours of Moscow and Petrograd, invite the dignitaries to participate in our commemoration activities, and provide training and resources about revolutions and communism.

In this group presentation, I contributed specifically to theater and music. As discovered in my research, I also wanted to focus on professional and amateur theatrical productions that displayed content about Lenin’s life, the Russian Revolutions, the Russian Civil War, workers’ movements, the French and Mexican Revolutions, and the Chinese Civil War. For music, I learned that Dmitri Shostakovich had written a symphony specifically for the 1927 commemoration called Symphony #2 in B Major, Op. 14 (To October). The symphony provokes the excitement and chaos of the Revolution and industrialization by using crescendos of instrumental dissonance, dominance of brass instruments, factory whistles, and a reading of Alexander Bezymensky’s To October.

Through these different mediums of glorifying the October Revolution, our group strived to reinvigorate Russians into reminiscing about 1917. Not only did we want the Russians to celebrate how the Revolution and communism positively impacted Russia politically, socially, and economically in the last ten years but also showcase how this Revolution extended the legacy of earlier revolutions (such as those in France and Mexico) and inspired a new generation of revolutions worldwide (such as in China). With all this in mind, our ultimate objective with the omni channel and multi-participant commemoration was to unify Russia and gather party support after Lenin’s death. With the threat of opposition from different factions, this October Revolution commemoration can be considered as a “cultural and historical memory intended to legitimize the young Soviet regime,” which situates itself well in our attempt to showcase an optimistic Soviet future with Stalin at the head (Corney 397).

 

 

Commemoration and Confusion: Historical Narratives of the October Revolution as “Winner’s Histories”

By Jacob Bruggeman

One of the reasons our ATH/HST/RUS 254 class has been so engaging has to do with the myriad perspectives we have considered in class. We attempted to hear voices from the periphery of the former Russian Empire, revolutionary murmurs in Central Asia, and the thoughts of workers, soldiers, women, and various ethnic groups. Our class, though, is fortunate enough to have a century’s worth of reflection, scholarship, and historical vetting on our side; the fracas of 1917, and those who found themselves acting within it, did not have this luxury. Indeed, one of the grand takeaways from our class might be that the Bolsheviks’ “winner’s histories”—which are by no means unique to 1917 and the Bolshevik state—are seldom holistic in their inclusion of the myriad ‘voices’ that we have paid due attention to throughout class. As such, planning a commemorative event of the October Revolution was a challenging exercise, for we needed to massage our event’s message so as to fit the Bolshevik, and increasingly Stalinist, history of the Revolution.

As part of Group C, I was charged with constructing the commemorations of the October Revolution in 1927, the 10-year anniversary of the Revolution. This was a challenging task, for in “the 1920s, the Bolsheviks were responding to many of the same pressures – the need rapidly to industrialize, to modernize agriculture, to build defense capability – that had motivated Nicolas II’s regime.”[1] These conditions, in a step back from the rhetoric of the Revolution, were addressed through the NEP, and so attempting to reconcile Bolshevik revolutionary rhetoric with the Party’s actions after their ascendance to power was headache-inducing for my group. Indeed, being only ten years removed from the October Revolution, yet in the midst of Stalin’s rise to power, made planning commemorations particularly difficult, for we had to grapple with Stalin’s inclusion on the October Revolution. To be sure, Stalin was rarely an important figure during the revolutionary goings on of 1917, but his eminence in the wake of Lenin’s death in 1927 necessitates some half-truths about the importance of his role in the October Revolution. Nevertheless, in 1927 the state leadership had not yet gone through the phase, in Trotsky’s words, when “a single ‘dictator’ [Stalin] substitute[d] himself for the Central Committee.”[2] Here again my group was presented with challenge: How do we reconcile the dwindling importance of other Bolsheviks while paying homage to the emerging leader, Joseph Stalin?

We dealt with this issue by, to be frank, avoiding it. Instead of focusing on the shifting political climate in 1927, our group’s commemoration detailed post-revolution developments in theater, music, cinema, various forms of art, literature, children’s programs, marches, women’s rights, a reenactment of the Storming of the Winter Palace, and invitations to multiple foreign dignitaries to come and witness our 10-year commemoration of the October Revolution. As these subjects make clear, we attempted to avoid dealing directly with Stalin’s rise to power, the “river of blood” unleashed in his ascendance, and importance of other figures such as Trotsky and Zinoviev.[3]

In commemorating theater, we decided to direct amateur productions on Lenin’s life, workers’ movements, the French Revolution, Mexican Revolution, and the Chinese Civil War. For music, our group would bring in the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra to play Dimitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 2, subtitled To October for the 10th anniversary of the October Revolution, and his Twelfth Symphony, subtitled The Year 1917. Similarly, our commemoration would feature films about the October revolution in every cinema throughout the state, along with temporary outdoor cinemas in the countryside. In terms of the classical arts—paintings and sculptures—public art exhibitions would be held so as to aid the masses in reflection upon the accomplishments of the state and the profundity of the October Revolution. The artwork displayed will be of the Socialist Realist school, each piece working with themes of industrialization, Communism, and the happenings of 1917.

Another series of public events will come in the form of readings of Lenin’s “What is to be Done?”, which will take place in city and town squares; Kollontai’s Our Tasks will be treated in the same way. With an eye to the Soviet youth, the Young Pioneers Choir of the Vladimir Lenin All-Union Pioneer Organization shall perform publicly for their fellow comrades, the selected songs for performance include rousing marches, calls to revolutionary solidarity and, The Anthem of Young Pioneers. In the same vein, the Komsomol will host a gathering for the promotion of athleticism, individual discipline, and subordination to the collective for the benefit of the Soviet youth. As was noted above, various marches will be held, and these will be organized around a reenactment of the Storming of the Winter Palace, an event to which numerous foreign dignitaries will be invited.

As these subjects make clear, it was difficult to reconcile the ‘official’ histories of the October Revolution with its gritty realities, and it was equally difficult to reconcile 1927’s political changes with the ‘winner’s histories’ told in and immediately after 1917, for these histories involved people other than Stalin. In the end, this activity helped me to understand the complexities of fabricating, in the face of conflicting accounts, a ‘winner’s history’.

[1] Smith, S. A. The Russian Revolution. New York: Sterling, 2011. Print. 160.

[2] Ibid., 161.

[3] Ibid.

Commemorating Revolution

By August Hagemann

Memory is powerful – only a cursory knowledge of history is necessary for that to become clear.  Especially modern Russian history.  From 1917 all the way up until the final collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian Communist Party sought to shape the Russian people’s memory of who they were and why they deserved to lead the country.  Of course, in order to play the hero, they had to have an origin story.  That story lay within the Russian Revolution, and how it was perceived.  Because of this, the Bolsheviks almost immediately began crafting  a narrative of the revolutionary struggle that made them out to be the true representatives of the Russian people.  As time went on, this narrative became grander and more solid still.  My group’s task in class last Tuesday was to step into the mindset of the Bolsheviks in 1927, just as the revolutionary story had finally fallen into place as the Bolsheviks wanted to, and decide how to commemorate it.  In true Bolshevik fashion, we decided the celebration would first clearly portray the Bolsheviks as the inheritors of the will of the Russian people, and second would be used as an opportunity to showcase the successes of Bolshevik ideology.

Such a grand goal required an equally grand celebration, so we decided on a variety of festivities and commemorations which were all to take place simultaneously – demonstrations, some by Communist youth organizations,  reenactments, commissioned works of literature, music, and art were all to have a place in our grand commemoration of 1917.  In order to cover such a broad range, we split our committee into even smaller “sub-committees” of a person or two each, who would focus on their own means of celebrating 1917 as well as how to tie it into our larger theme of Bolshevik legitimacy.  This would be done by focusing all these various celebrations on how happy the working people of Russia were that the Bolsheviks won the civil war, and how much more freedom and equality everyone had.  This was to be the universal cry of Russians everywhere – as a Bolshevik governmental committee, we did not consider the historical truth of this, for as far as we were concerned Bolshevik legitimacy was the only possible narrative, and the celebrations would help the people to understand that.

This was not to be a celebration for only Russians, however, and it was not to be an event focused on the past.  In 1927, the dream of an international Communist revolution was still alive, so we would invite foreign dignitaries from as many nations as possible to our celebrations.  This way, they would be exposed to the cultural and economic grandeur of the Soviet Union, and so would be more likely to foment insurrection in their own countries.  Because of this international aspect of our celebrations, our group did decide to include Zinoviev as a prominent figure in the celebrations.  Stalin was rising in 1927, but there were still old stars in the sky, so we wanted to make sure to include them.  That being said, during the reenactment of the storming of the winter palace, which was to be the crown jewel of our celebrations, we did decide to give Stalin a prominent part.  As an increasingly powerful member of the party, he certainly would have had some influence on our decision making, and we wanted to reflect that.

Such political considerations as that dominated our discussion of what the exact content of the celebration should be, and to me provided the primary lesson of the whole activity – in the Soviet Union, a society free of class struggle, power and politics were an inescapable part of everyday life.  My group made the decision to celebrate in such a broad manner, with the goal only of promoting Bolshevism as a whole at home and abroad, because in 1927 the political climate was far too stormy to give our weight to any one faction.  Had we actually been members of a 1927 celebratory committee, it is entirely possible the balance between Stalin and Zinoviev in our celebrations could have cost us our lives, but in 1927 we would have had no way of knowing that.  In post-revolutionary Russia, memory was power, and power was everything, so no celebration could have occurred without considering to whom it gave the power and why.

Commemorating the Russian Revolution

By Ali Forster

After a semester of learning about the Russian Revolution of 1917, students of HST 254 would finish the semester as they started it; with a role-playing exercise. Through the course, I have learned about the imperial dimensions of the Russian revolution and how different people experienced the revolution and civil war.

The exercise had different groups from different time periods and cities. I was assigned to group D, which was tasked with the official Russian 100 year commemoration. We were to pretend that Vladimir Putin asked our team to address the revolution in the year of 2017. Through working with and observing the group, I realized that the persistent, confident individuals had the most sway in the decision making process.

After discussion with the group and my own research I felt I had a good understanding of Putin’s opinions on revolution. Knowing his stance, I still felt strongly that our group should outright address the revolution in some depth. I knew Putin would dislike my method, but I figured the worst that would happen is that I am fired from my job. After learning about Soviet Russia where people could be executed or exiled from Russia for less, this punishment seemed bearable. Additionally, I did not want some unaffiliated citizen to attempt to commemorate the revolution in a way that we could not approve of.[1]

I wanted to highlight the negative aspects of the revolution by putting out propagandist posters. I had hoped to put out several posters; one would depict a hand in shackles holding a sickle and hammer. This visual propaganda would signify how the revolution only traded one ruler for another and the freedom the people had fought for was nonexistent. I am personally very interested in propaganda and was initially adamant that we use it. However, my group felt that my approach was too loud, too assertive and not sympathetic enough to Putin’s ideals. My attitude is to go big or go home, and evidently, my group would rather have gone home. They decided to play it safe and omit and ignore parts of the revolution. Realizing I was fighting a losing battle, I joined their ranks and tried to develop ideas along with them. Our group talked at great length about depicting the revolution as a bad thing. We knew we could not completely ignore the revolution, but we had to be careful not to glorify it. We wanted to emphasize that the revolution was a necessary evil in order for Russia to be where it is today. Our focus would be on a united Russia and how strong we are now.

Ultimately we decided to have a somewhat quiet commemoration. We determined that we would advertise minimally, though we would indeed advertise. Our group decided to host scholarly events that would focus on the negative aspects of the revolution like the bloody war, and the thousands of deaths. We claimed that the toppling of the tsar was good, but we wanted to ignore the bolshevism entirely. We planned to use art and culture to commemorate the centennial of 1917. We decided to put on plays and screen movies from 1917, and cultivate exhibitions of art from the time period. I believe it was Stacy who came up with the idea of a poetry competition highlighting how great Russia is today. Everyone loved that idea and jumped to expand upon it. The competition would be for school children, and the winner of the competition would perform it for Putin at the Kremlin. Towards the end of our meeting, Abby asked us if she should draw anything for the project and I joked that we should draw Putin in the artistic style that Annenkov used in his 17 portraits. Stacy coined the term ‘the 18th portrait’ and Abby drew him.

We ended our discussion with the decision to fly Russian flags at half-mast to honor those who died in the protests and really emphasize the honor of those that died fighting in the war. Overall I felt that my groups approach was mild. However, after a semester of learning about the harsh realities of the soviets and the propaganda they used, I feel that I may have been compromised by Bolshevism.

[1] Macfarquhar, Neil. “‘Revolution? What Revolution?’ Russia Asks 100 Years Later.” The New York Times. March 10, 2017. Accessed May 9, 2017.

The Russian Revolution in America?

By Katelynn Schieve

The Russian Revolution was a significant event in world history, but its complexity and its consequences in the Soviet Union make discussing it controversial. In the 100 years since, people have portrayed the Revolution to reflect the values at the time it was being commemorated. Remembering the Revolution during its anniversary is complicated, particularly in America where people have strong views on communism and Russia but little background on the Revolution itself. Deciding in a group how to commemorate the Revolution in America in 2017 made clear how complex the Russian Revolution was and helped me to understand the implicit biases that are present when people report or write scholarly articles or textbooks on a controversial moment in history like the Revolution.

One of the first components of the project we sought to address was the context: how should the Russian Revolution be presented today to Americans? Our group’s discussions revolved around two problems: the fact that most Americans know very little or nothing about the Russian Revolution and overall, Americans hate communism. Most Americans’ prior knowledge of the Revolution involves the big personalities: Stalin and Lenin, and that the Revolution resulted in communism. However, many Americans may not even be aware of when the Revolution took place or that there were multiple revolutions and revolts. Americans’ view of communism also impacted our decision. They still do not have a very positive relationship with Russia, especially after the 2016 election. Americans generally believe that communism is evil and results in the government trying to control every part of people’s lives. A small amount of academics or more learned people feel communism is good in theory but has never been carried out well. How we framed the Revolution would likely be judged negatively by many Americans if we didn’t criticize communism enough or showed the negative consequences, like at Royal Academy. Art critic Jonathan Jones denounced the exhibition focusing on Russian Art from 1917-1932 as focusing too much on the utopian ideals and not mentioning the evils of the Stalinist regime and what communism lead to (Jones, 2017). Any portrayal we made would reveal our opinions of communism.

We made the decision to have a children’s museum so that we could portray the basic ideas of the Revolution to children and adults who had very little background knowledge. Designing a museum to teach the fundamentals of the Revolution in an interactive experience was appealing to the group. We wanted to be able to express the reasons and different perspectives of the Revolution while keeping it understandable and not being too soft on communism and the grim realities of Stalinism. In order to do this, we decided on having larger exhibits focused on the background and reasons for the Revolution and the consequences of the February Revolution told from the perspectives of children. We looked at the Holocaust Museum as a model for how we could make the Revolution exhibit appealing and interactive for children, while still explaining the seriousness. We had a peasant child walking visitors through her hovel and explaining the peasants’ problems that lead to the Revolution and a bourgeois child show the inequality the February Revolution fought against. We wanted to show the ideals of the Revolution and why it happened. In order for us to have this stance in the US, we decided to have the rest of the exhibits walk through a timeline until the collapse of the Soviet Union. This way, we are able to connect the exhibits to what many adults at least would have more prior knowledge on, having lived through parts of the Cold War. In seeing exhibits based on events they or their parents witnessed on the news, parents are able to build upon their prior knowledge and help their children make connections. In deciding what to include, I realized that when textbook companies and scholars write about the Revolution or when museum curators design an exhibit, they make judgments on what the importance of the Revolution is and what readers and listeners should walk away learning from a simplified version of a very complex period of history. The Royal Academy gallery of the Revolution wanted to portray the stunning new art styles that came out of the Revolution and the idealism of the people. They wanted visitors to come away with a different perspective on the Revolution as having high ideals and potential for a new type of nation. We chose to portray the idealism and reasons behind the Revolution, which may conflict with Americans’ notions of communism and Russia but still include the harsh consequences and what went wrong.

This project helped me to better understand the complexity of the revolution and the difficulty of making decisions of what to portray when remembering the Russian Revolution. The Revolution was a monumental social revolution that changed the course of world history. Most people in the US know very little about it, but by having a children’s museum for its anniversary, we hope to tell the story of the reasons, the ideals and potential, and the outcomes of the Russian Revolution leading up to today to the youth of America and their families.

Works Cited

Jones, J. (2017, February 01). We cannot celebrate revolutionary Russian art – it is brutal propaganda. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2017/feb/01/revolutionary-russian-art-brutal-propaganda-royal-academy

 

Reenacting Revolution

Note:  On February 2, 2017, students in Stephen Norris’s Spring 2017 Introduction to Russian Studies course engaged in a role-playing exercise that aimed to replicate the decision-making the Bolsheviks faced when they seized power in October 1917.  One-hundred years after the momentous events of that year, Miami students placed themselves in the shoes of revolutionaries and then reflected on what that in-class exercise helped them learn about the Russian Revolution.  Below are papers written by students in the class.

By Addison Caruso, Adam Cloch, Chelsea Leipold, Katelyn Scheive, Nick Schleter, Mary Seaman, and Brad Terrace.

Addison Caruso

It was a dark and cloudy day, and as the wind rustled all around me I knew it was time to plan a revolution. We had succeeded previously in toppling our autocratic Tsar, and the successor, an autocrat in all but name, Kerensky. The task for building a government was ours on this foreboding day, and it is a task that was to be done in the utmost urgency. Comrade Lenin appointed me to the security council, where I was to, in the face of enemies from everywhere, come up with a way to keep our new nation safe. As there were threats from all around us; the Whites, kulaks, and double agents within our own party, we had to proceed fast. We had a mere forty-five minutes to come up with a plan to protect this government of the proletariat from its enemies. Luckily this was not a barrier for us. Through sheer will and compromise we were able to reach a decision that all were proud of.

In my committee, there were two personalities that were prominent, mine and comrade August. He is a wise and well-read Bolshevik but his ideas of violence are abhorrent to me. I was taught very young about the French Revolution and the reign of terror that followed it. The number of people killed in the name of freedom and liberty is staggering, and something that must not be repeated. I believe a revolution can happen without the shedding of blood.  He disagreed. It was hard to reach an agreement given our strong personal beliefs. He shared with me his hatred of the bourgeoisie, as his father had been killed by his landlord when their rent was behind due to a bad harvest that was happening. Despite this we managed to reach an agreement that violence would be used only as a last resort. I guess a little violence is better than no violence. The other two comrades in my committee were not so forceful, and once me and comrade August agreed on a solution, the other two members were happy to follow along.

As a fervent Bolshevik, I have read many of comrade Lenin’s and Trotsky’s writings and treatises. One of the writing’s that inspired me in this endeavor was Lenin’s speech describing the three components of Marxism. His talk of the class struggle and how the new revolution must bring the proletariat into power, caused me to think how we would design a justice system based on this. I decided on a court system based on class, where the proletariat would have the power in tribunals and we would rid ourselves of the bourgeoisie excesses that exist. We also decided that we must rid ourselves of the ruling class who refuse to commit to this new order. While this does sound harsh, as comrade Lenin said, we must destroy the old order to build a new one, and no single victory of political freedom was won without struggle by the capitalist classes. We knew that the old order would resist, but I advocated for letting them declare their support for the revolution. I always support the olive branch over the sword, and it is this idea that I tried to impart on the committee.

After we had decided on a solution I felt relieved. We had solved one of the central problems plaguing Russia. A hundred years from now as students reenact this glorious day, I do hope they can grasp the pressures that we were put under and understand that while our decisions might not have been the ideological ones, we were under tremendous pressure to keep our new government safe from harm. With enemies, all around you it can be hard not to resort to violence, this temptation is there, but to those that want to give into this temptation, I caution restraint as I did during our meeting. Violence only leads to more violence, only through offering reconciliation and a chance to be a part of this new Russia, can we make this socialist utopia we have all dreamed of, a reality.

Adam Cloch

Comrades, as we look back on our last meeting we must remember to proceed with great haste. Time is of the essence if we are to implement our ideas for our glorious revolution. We met and discussed for only a short amount of time, but we accomplished much, especially in our group on economics. Comrades Mohinee, Madison, and Abby all worked diligently to come to our conclusions, but they did not come without great argument and uncertainty. Lenin should also be proud of the work of his we have followed as laid out in his April Theses only five months ago. As we look back on the meeting we have just finished, we must understand that our findings fall in line with what other comrades of ours who have discussed and that moving forward we make haste to ensure our economic goals are successful.

The matter of discussion only being 45 minutes long was a great constraint and burden felt within our group. In order to accomplish the most we could, egos and nonconformist ideas had to be left outside. It was of extreme importance that we had only those in our group that wanted the revolution to succeed and no bourgeoisie spies in the mix. Comrade Mohinee and I had very good discussion on what our goals should be within economics and in doing so, we knew beforehand each other’s biases. I believed, and still believe, that our revolution should happen within the quickest time-frame possible, while Mohinee at first wanted to take a more gradual approach. If I had not understood this beforehand, I would have thought of her as a spy from the wretched bourgeois. I found my job to be persuading my other two comrades, Madison and Abby that my way was the correct one for changing the economy.

Our ultimate conclusions follow Lenin’s plan as laid out in the April Theses including the nationalization of all lands and the seizure of banks so they fall under one collective controlled by the Soviet of Workers Deputies. Our work also follows true on the words of the interpretation of Marx, by Lenin, who talked greatly about the need for workers to understand their position and rise up together. Our plan entails the seizure of the factories and fields by the proletariat and peasants in unison to take back what they deserve from their own labors. As this will be a very rapid turn of events the original job is to be carried out under the watch of the local Soviets, but power will be transferred to a central group of Soviets where we can decide our best course of action within one month.

As I compare the work that my economic group has accomplished compared to others in the party I believe that we can learn much from each other in our short amount of time. One of the biggest points that effected our decision making, besides time, was the biases that were known in our group. As I said earlier, not knowing that Mohinee wished to take a slower approach, one that curtailed no use of violence and the use of elections before seizures, I would have thought of her as a spy. Since I did know that she was on the revolutionary side, I did not call for her execution for her actions. We should, however, remain vigilant to combat any bourgeois infiltration and proposals.  Besides the economic outlook, the groups on executive power and state security had similar, radical ideas to our own. I believe that together, and with considering other factors we can all work together to accomplish the goals of the revolution. Also, the use of the writings by Comrade Lenin proved to be very useful as well as the understanding in the lead up to the events that led us to our meeting in October. I believe some members on economics may have forgotten some details of where we stood since we had seized power before our meetings. It felt as if I spent a lot of time convincing some of my other party members that it was time to move forward with her revolutionary ideas and not get hung up on saying it is what we should do once we had seized the power.

The next coming days and months will tell us if our revolution is successful or not. As we look back on the decisions we have made and if they are carried out effectively I am confident that we will continue to see the rise of the proletariat not only in our glorious Russia, but across Europe and the rest of the world.

Chelsea Leipold

Coming into the role-playing exercise, I was unsure what to expect. The day before, I had gotten an email giving me a side to take and argue to my group. In the Nationalities Committee, I was to convince my group that the Bolshevik state should reconstitute the Russian Empire and oppose any efforts to declare independence. After doing the readings in preparation, I found that Lenin had a viewpoint separate from the stance I was to take. I tried to pick out short quotes that, out of context, would support my argument. I also hoped that some of my group members would come to class having not read the assigned Lenin writings, or wouldn’t have strong opinions on the matter, and thus go along with whatever I said.

I walked into class determined to carry out my mission of reconstituting the Russian Empire. It quickly became apparent that my fellow committee members had read Lenin’s writings, and that I had my work cut out for me. Through our discussion, it was clear that some favored letting the repressed nationalities declare independence, while another was leaning towards my own side of keeping the nationalities on a tighter leash. After some debate and referencing Lenin’s works, we reached a compromise, which was essentially what Lenin had proposed and discussed. As a Nationalities Committee, we proposed what was essentially a veiled independence. We decided that each formerly repressed nationality should be given the option to declare independence, however going along with that, the Bolshevik state should remain incredibly close to this newly formed, independent nation in order to keep them in check. More importantly, there would be a push to ensure that all nationalities see themselves as the proletariat as their main identity, as discussed by the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party in their Resolution on the Nationalities Question. The hope is that they identify more as a class than a nationality, therefore uniting all of the workers in our newly formed socialist state. Lenin says in his Resolution on the National Question, “Only the merging of various nationalities… will make it possible for the proletariat to wage a successful struggle against international Capital and bourgeois nationalism.” It is essential that all of the nationalities come together as a working class so that socialism can take hold.

While we did compromise relatively easily, as neither side was very aggressive in getting their own way, I did push for the loyalty to the working class, as well as to the new Bolshevik state. I made sure that the committee was clear that it was pseudo independence, only used to achieve unity among the working classes. I think had our group been composed of individuals with larger, possibly more stubborn, personalities, compromise would have been much more difficult. I imagine that during 1917 this would have been the case. Prominent figures would have duked it out more often than they sat down, talked it out, and eventually reach an agreement. This is what seemed to have happened in several of the other committees during the exercise. Under the pressure of having a country dropped in your lap in need of a new government, I could imagine individuals getting very stressed, and not everyone reacts positively to such situations. I picture tensions running high and many arguments taking place, which again, was not the case in my group. I would say that as a whole, my committee was probably not as representative of what happened in 1917 as some of the others. Filled with calm and levelheaded committee members with willingness to compromise, we drafted a proposal supported by the works of Lenin in which everyone, including formerly repressed nationalities got something that they wanted.

Katelyn Scheive

In preparing for the cultural committee, I read the listed key document and Lenin’s cultural speech on the Marxist website that was given before the Revolution. As a group, we tended to agree that we should use propaganda but struggled to figure out whether we should use any forms of the traditional culture. We also focused much of our discussion on how to implement these policies across the Soviet Union. We decided to use traditional cultural forms and propaganda focused on the proletariat. The time restrictions, given preferences, and different personalities in each committee helped to reflect the certain conditions of the Russian Revolution, but I have a few ideas in how these factors could be improved to more closely resemble the actual committees.

The time restrictions placed on us helped me to understand how quickly and challenging it was to put untested theories into practice. According to scholar Stephen Smith, the restlessness of the people and risk of threat of foreign intervention affected the committee’s urgency. Fast decisions were necessary, which didn’t allow for much debate (Smith, 67). We discussed at great length how we should implement our cultural policies in a timely manner so that the culture would reflect the changes the revolution was trying to make. We wanted to use radio, posters on buildings, art, and the educational system to bring about the new culture focused on the proletariat. We did not focus on the ethical implications of our ideas; we simply wanted to get a solid plan in place that could dictate how the policy would be carried out. We lost the luxury of in-depth debate and democracy, as the real committees did. The time restrictions and other constraints could be adjusted to reflect the changing atmosphere of committees. In 1921, factions were ‘temporarily’ banned, but this was never changed (Smith, 68). This activity could reflect the reduced dissent by giving more time to work on plans of execution after presenting our views to the class, but telling us we couldn’t change our ideas from our original plan. You could also email or give a note to one of the participants telling them that anyone who debates the in-place ideas are bourgeoisie or anti-revolutionary.

The given preferences reflected the many conflicting ideas on how the ideals of Marx should be carried out that the class as a whole new little about. Even though this was only a simulation, the given preference gave me a starting base for research and helped form a strong opinion for what we should do as a committee. I do think there are additional ways to reflect the motivation of the committee. For example, Stalin rose to power through his strong opinions in committees. More power and higher rank were very real rewards for doing well in committees. In this activity, the emails could say that if their idea is agreed upon by the committee, they’d receive candy or extra credit. This would strengthen our given preferences and help reflect people’s motivations and intentions in the committees in 1917.

This activity helped me to understand much more the power of personalities in the committees at the time. Clearly, in hindsight, the ideals of the revolution were not carried out through the committees. In the very limited time that was available, people relied upon their confidence and persuasion abilities, like Stalin. For example, he argued “self determination should be exercised only by the laboring classes, and not by the bourgeoisie” (Smith, 55). Decisions were often based on “pragmatic abilities” when there was not a clear decision (Smith, 55). In my group, another person and I tended to disagree based on our preferences. The other person tended to be more firm and ‘louder.’ And since she was the one who presented our ideas to the class, she focused on the topics she thought were most important. I think our existing differences in personality easily reflected the individual differences in 1917. In both cases, strong and persuasive personalities tended to have their opinions reflected more in policy.

This activity helped me most realize the critical effect of the limited time frame, the differing positions based on Marx theories, and the power of personalities in discussion. October 1917 could have resulted in many different outcomes in a communist government. The simulation helped demonstrate how the ideals of the theories were sometimes lost in committees and lead to the dictatorial communist government that existed for decades.

Nick Schleter

In American history, it is often taught that one of the reasons we were victorious in the Revolutionary War was that we fought harder. We fought harder because we were defending our own land and believed deeply in our cause. Before it happened, it was idealistic – thinking 13 colonies subject to the most powerful king on earth could rebel and win to become the land of the free. Going through the activity of building a revolution of my own, it put into perspective just how much idealism was required for the Bolsheviks to have succeeded in building a revolution.

As late as spring 1917, no logical person could have argued that the Bolsheviks would be able to take over the government. But logic is not revolutionary. Suspension of disbelief is revolutionary. Going into the activity, we were assigned to read Lenin, Lenin, and Lenin. A well-informed decision draws evidence from multiple sources but not if the ideas of Lenin and Marx are the absolute truth without room for interpretation. The revolution could not have carried on upon the will of one man if that one man did not believe unconditionally. Any shred of doubt would have derailed the entire operation.

By trying for a short 45 minutes to replicate this fervor, it became clear that it was impossible to think it. The revolutionary spirit must be felt, and that is why our proposal would not have stood up to light scrutiny. Using the sources, we knew that strikes must be abolished, markets must be closed, currency and ownership of property must cease, and the war must be ended. However, each suggestion was met with a scoff or a discussion of how impossible it would be to implement. As students taught capitalism and its flaws from birth, we were incapable of the idealism required to set such lofty goals. Our proposed timeline was vague and our big questions were merely touched on. Part of this was due to time constraints, but another part was because of an underlying unwillingness to entertain such a fantasy. Without ‘pure’ ideals, the effort and focus required to answer such important questions in such a condensed timeframe was absent.

Lenin lacked nothing in the department of revolutionary spirit. In his work, An Open Letter to the Delegates of the All-Russian Congress of Peasants’ Deputies, he opens with “All the land must belong to the people. All the landed estates must be turned over to the peasants without compensation.” He says this confidently and treats it as a matter of fact. He continues “The dispute here is where or not the peasants in the local areas should take all the land at once…” His baseline is that land that had been in families for generations that collectively is worth millions upon millions of dollars should be stripped without compensation. The only question, to him, is whether or not it should happen overnight. There is no mention of possible upheaval or outrage. There is only a sense that right is right and right must be done.

The most important sense, from my experience in the exercise, which Lenin and his fellow revolutionaries had was that the history progressed in stages and theirs was the next one up. From Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism Lenin writes “If it were necessary to give the briefest possible definition of imperialism we should have to say that imperialism is the monopoly stage of capitalism.” With the most important countries on earth using capitalism in some form or another, it is fair to state that history was in a capitalism stage. And with the globe divided up as it had been among the wealthy, it was believable that that capitalism had evolved into imperialism. Additionally, the chaos and carnage surrounding the Great War enhanced one’s ability to believe that history was on the precipice of change. The relatively stable geopolitical order today as well as the benefit of hindsight robbed our group of that belief. When making our decisions, it was not under the assumption that our proposal would be successful and mark the beginning of global socialist utopia. Many victors in battle have believed that God himself was on their side, and the Bolsheviks had a similarly powerful ideal that history itself was careening down the railroad tracks in their favor.

The activity allowed me to see the faith required for the Bolsheviks to seek power, let alone obtain it.

Mary Seaman

Procrastination is going to kill me; Mary swore to herself as she typed her reflection for an exercise she barely remembered. She flung her head against her desk. English didn’t make sense anymore, which wasn’t surprising considering she’d stayed up all night trying to word her first assignment perfectly. She scrunched her eyes together. Maybe, if I wasn’t such a perfectionist, I’d be done by now and I could sleep. Just…sleep…

She felt a hand shake her shoulder and became alert once more. She rubbed her eyes and turned to thank the person who woke her. Her jaw dropped. Scrutinizing her with an icy glare was Leon Trotsky. There were so many questions she didn’t know how to ask whirling around her brain that she naturally sat motionless, in shock, until he finally said with a barely repressed rage:

“You did it wrong.”

Stupefied, she replied, “D-did what wrong?”

His eyes narrowed. “The exercise. Everything was wrong.”

“Um…how so?”

His head tilted, nostrils flared, and eyes widened in outrage. “How so?” He moved to her desk and stole her laptop. He began to read patronizingly, “Our security committee was able to produce a functional system that didn’t repeat the mistakes of Revolutions preceding it; additionally, by allowing dissenters to be ‘reeducated’ we ensured the peaceful transition to a historically right, Marxist society, with limited bloodshed.” He closed her laptop and flung it at her. She caught it, just barely, and held it protectively to her chest. “I almost pity your ineptitude.”

She put her laptop down and turned to Trotsky with a confused expression, “The Marxist system was, in your view, historically inevitable. If that was truly the case, doesn’t that mean everyone would have caught on eventually? If you wanted to speed up that process – reeducation is the most understandable solution: not execution.”

Trotsky laughed. “Oh, in theory maybe. But we were forced to execute! The ‘dissenters,’” he emphasized with air-quotes, “entered a war against that inevitability and became the enemy of progress. In war the enemy must be made harmless, and in wartime this means that he must be destroyed.”[1]

“One of my groupmates argued a similar point, and I’m positive you know what you’re talking about here, Mr. Trotsky.” Mary said with a cautious glance his direction, “But how can you claim to support a Marxist revolution if you have to use violent oppression to ensure its success?”

He scoffed, “How could you expect to make the enemy truly accept the conditions of its conqueror without violent repression? Repression remains a necessary means of breaking the will of the opposing side. Terror can be very efficient against a reactionary class. It kills individuals, but intimidates thousands. We didn’t have the time to both ensure our supremacy beyond question and subscribe to your lofty idealism.”

For some reason, Mary still wasn’t convinced, “If that’s the case, then wasn’t this Revolution just as morally bankrupt as the bourgeoisie Revolutions before you? A Marxist Revolution, a perfect Revolution, would respect the sacredness of human life more than a bourgeoisie Revolution could ever hope, because it’s the natural progression of the history, right?”

Trotsky gritted his teeth in annoyance, “The principle of the “sacredness of human life” remains a shameful lie, uttered with the object of keeping the oppressed slaves in their chains.” He crossed his hands over his chest, “You were scared history would repeat itself, and said your piece about the French Revolution during the discussion, but I doubt you actually think that avoiding a Terror would have ensured the survival of our Revolution, given our precarious position at the time.”

Mary averted her eyes; he did have a point. She wasn’t even sure if she would have brought up the French Revolution during the discussion if Dr. Norris hadn’t emailed her beforehand, and, if she hadn’t advocated for that, the group would’ve enacted a policy of extreme prejudice against any dissidents. Still though, it was the only historical event remotely precedent to the Russian Revolution at that time – how could it not be relevant?

Trotsky sighed, “The Bolsheviks held out not only by ideas, but by the sword. It was a new Revolution and we couldn’t afford to be swept up in the idealism of nonexistent historical precedents. I suggest you say as much in your paper.”

And with that, Trotsky disappeared. Mary blinked at the place he’d just stood with a mixture of confusion and horror. She shook her head and opened her laptop to finish her essay, I’m never drinking Red Bull again.

[1] Anytime that the text is underlined, it is a direct quote from the Trotsky reading – albeit, some of them are out of order.

Brad Terrace

Transporting myself from 2017 back to 1917 helped me to understand the circumstances surrounding the revolution and also allowed me to take on a new role as Vladimir Lenin. When I received the email from Dr. Norris, I recognized that he wanted me to take on the role of Vladimir Lenin in my group, a role that I was excited, but also a role with huge responsibility. Ultimately, I was able to convince my group to make the decrees that I was instructed to do in the email. Although I wish I was able to take full responsibility and brag about a superior intelligence, there were factors that I will discuss that I believe contributed to my success. At the end of the day, I believe that I had a much greater understanding of the crucial events of 1917 that would send shock waves through the world.

The first factor that influenced my success in my group was comrade Aleah informing the group that she received an email from Dr. Norris, a fact that I kept secret. Once I knew that comrade Aleah was the “poison” of the group, but didn’t fully believe her argument, I started pointing out passages and quotes from Lenin to sway the group. In the April Thesis, Lenin of course states his opposition to the provisional government in #3, but more importantly for our group, he argued that a return to a parliamentary government would be a retrograde step in #5. Right as we were discussing this point, Dr. Norris handed a secret note to comrade Danny and immediately Danny switched his attitude from a casual supporter of the argument to an ardent supporter of my argument. With Danny and I both arguing the points, Tianyang and Aleah soon agreed that we should establish a dictatorship.

Our next debate centered on whether or not we should allow other parties besides our own to participate in this dictatorship. Once again I turned to the Lenin readings because Lenin stated in From the Political Situation that “the aim of the insurrection can only be to transfer power to the proletariat… with a view to putting our Party program into effect.” Vladimir Lenin obviously believed that only Bolsheviks should rule; he did not trust other socialists because they could try to implement bourgeoisie policies. I conveyed this lack of trust to the group and with Danny so enthusiastically on my side, as well as the pressing time factor, the group decided that our Party would be the only party in power.

I believe that the reason that I, Vladimir Lenin, was successful on both of my major objectives were my previous knowledge, comrade Aleah stating she received an email, and time. Beginning with time, we were able to rush comrade Aleah and pressure her into doing what we wanted because she was unable to think of alternatives to our plan that fit what she was supposed to argue. It also helped that the group knew what she was trying to argue since she revealed her secret about the email and her opposition to the points made her easily persuaded. Another factor, and the reason I was most excited to be Lenin, was taking POL 331 last semester gave me a lot of background information about the history of the Soviet Union and the policies of Lenin. I used this information to persuade Aleah further because I presented myself as an expert on the subject and the true positions of Lenin. Overall, transporting myself back to 1917 was educational and entertaining because it gave us an opportunity to feel what the Bolsheviks felt during that time. We could feel the passing of every second was important and the roles we played allowed us to understand the different arguments and personalities involved in the original process. Most importantly, I learned that in my specific situation, I would have made Lenin proud by achieving the things that he wanted and was able to achieve in 1917. As he was quoted in Smith, “Soviet socialist democracy is not incompatible with one-person management or dictatorship.” In Spring of 2017, Executive Committee Group B was able to put his writings into practice.

All seven students were in HST 254, Introduction to Russian and Eurasian Studies.

PAST AND PRESENT: Divided We Stand: How the US Can Learn From Political Polarization in Latin American History

By Joey DeMarco

On the morning of Tuesday, November 8th, I awoke to find that a friend had posted the following about one of the candidates for President of the United States on Facebook: “If you are voting for this monster, please unfriend me; you are beyond any human bounds of decency.” This post is emblematic of the deep political divisions in the United States today. Harsh and divisive rhetoric from political leaders, combined with the social media-driven ability to create a sort of ideological echo chamber, means that the public finds itself more polarized than ever. Through the ever-expanding reaches of social media, the way that these political tensions manifest themselves in various aspects of U.S. culture is automatically documented for future generations to remember. With this in mind, one cannot help but reflect on how this moment will be remembered compared to similar periods in world history. Specifically, the U.S. can draw from lessons learned by examining textbooks in Latin American countries such as Argentina and Venezuela from particularly contentious moments in their history. How these textbooks reflected a divided society, combined with the historical context of events that unfolded in these countries as a result, can tell us a great deal about the legacies of countries where governments and citizens embrace political polarization.

In 1946, Juan Perón was elected President of Argentina on the back of a campaign to empower Argentine workers. As part of his movement, Perón openly pushed resentment of the country’s elites and repressed dissenting opinions, fostering deep divisions within the country. He became well known for the slogan “Alpargatos sí, libros no” (shoes yes, books no), simultaneously a call for social programs to help the country’s poor and a condemnation of universities, which he saw as a place to foster dissent from elites. In attempting to limit opposition, he reconstructed the education system as a place to standardize what it meant to be Argentine and build support for his own government. Schools nationwide were required to read Perón’s wife Eva’s autobiography. Textbooks specifically described Juan and Eva Perón as patriotic figures ready to defend the country by any means necessary, and mentioned that wealth redistribution was a moral responsibility of the rich[1]. Though the goal was a country unified in support of Perón, this attempt to create a standardized national ideology only further isolated Perón’s opponents and carved deep national divisions. Perón was overthrown by a military coup in 1955, and though his rhetoric was not the sole cause, the tensions it brought to the country certainly did not buy him any favors. This case illustrates the dangers of attempting to wash over differing opinions. Peron’s actions to use textbooks to try and define the opinions of schoolchildren combined with his rhetoric that harbored animosity between political groups created a society that could not function together, culminating in his forced removal from office. U.S. society could learn from the dangers of ignoring political opposition. It is all too easy today to receive news from slanted sources online and surround oneself with like-minded individuals. This allows groups to ramp up disdain for and fear of differing opinions without trying to understand their rational, rendering civil interactions increasingly rare.

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In more recent history, since the 1998 election of Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan government has sought to define its political interactions with opponents as a battle between good and bad. The rhetoric of Chávez and his successor, Nicolás Maduro (who define their governmental movement as the “Bolivarian Revolution”), has been extremely harsh, defining opponents as enemies of the state and their government as the country’s natural protector. The Executive Branch has generally refused to work with the opposition controlled Legislature, and has been widely criticized for the jailing of political opponents (a suggestion which would be familiar to followers of the U.S. election, both Republican and Democrat). These actions have created a deeply divided country which sees almost daily protests for and against the government, oftentimes resulting in clashes that leave protestors wounded.  The type of government rhetoric that has led to these moments can be seen, as in Argentina, from an evaluation of the Venezuelan public school classroom, which has been constitutionally required to promote “Bolivarian ideals” since 1999.  This has meant the teaching of socialism and hyper-nationalism as inherent values for schoolchildren to have. A manifestation of this strategy can be seen in this corresponding image, which comes from an illustrated children’s edition of Venezuela’s constitution distributed to all schoolchildren. The drawing shows a man with the words “Venezuelan State” printed on a trademark red Chavista shirt, shielding a myriad of obliviously joyful children from some rather devious-looking individuals. The image is meant to conjure sentiments of the government as a paternal, protective figure, while the unidentified nature of the threatening characters means that children cannot be sure of who to trust other than the state. The effects of the presentation of this type of material in Venezuelan public schools are very real. A 2013 survey suggested heavy divides in the way schoolchildren view the country.  This survey shows how fourth through sixth grade children in public, or “Bolivarian,” and private schools responded to a series of questions regarding their perceptions of the nation.  The results indicate that the ideological influence of pro-Bolivarian materials in public schools, and presumably anti-Bolivarian material in private ones, begins to push young Venezuelan citizens into certain world perspectives. The divides in Venezuelan society are already present at young ages, showing the effects that exposure to a uniform attitude or narrative can have. As today’s Venezuela suffers perhaps more political turmoil than any other country in the hemisphere, the U.S. could stand to learn from the lessons of its ideological education program. Framing differences of opinion as a battle between good and bad or isolated exposure to one viewpoint creates a dangerous situation whereby resentment between groups boils over into real, tangible outcomes.

By almost any metric, the U.S. is more politically divided today than it has been in living memory. Per the Pew Research Center,[3] the public defines itself as more ideologically extreme and less politically moderate than it did even 20 years ago. A report by The Economist notes that public opinion matches the trends of political leaders, as Republicans and Democrats in Congress vote with the majority of members of their own party with increasing exclusivity.[4] The Facebook post I opened with is representative of the feelings of many Americans that those who do not share the same political opinions as them are not just ideologically, but factually and morally wrong. The social media-driven echo chamber that it is so tempting to enter diminishes critical thinking in favor of reaffirmation of existing ideas. It is easier to confirm your opinions than to meticulously analyze them, and it is easier to do that today than ever. The U.S. public must fight this urge, or fail to learn from the lessons of the past. Isolating oneself with one unchallenged ideology, painting those with different opinions as the enemy, and trying to force others to conform to certain political opinions led to measurable turmoil in Argentina and Venezuela. All of these have been very visible responses to recent events such as the November presidential election. These reactions have been documented and immortalized online, and will surely be a major part of what this time period is remembered for. As individuals, members of the U.S. public must now be open to, and indeed seek out, regular interaction and dialogue amongst those with diverse opinions. These actions are pivotal as we look to heal the wounds of a divided nation and not have this present moment become a case study in the dangers of embracing political division.

 

[1] Plotkin, Mariano Ben. Mañana es San Perón: A Cultural History of Perón’s Argentina. Wilmington, Del.: SR Books, 2003: 110.

[2] Anselmi, Manuel. Chavez’s Children : Ideology, Education, and Society in Latin America. Lanham : Lexington Books, 2013: 136-137.

[3] http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/11/07/americas-political-divisions-in-5-charts/

[4] http://www.economist.com/news/united-states/21591190-united-states-amoeba

Joey DeMarco is a Senior majoring in International Studies and Latin American Studies.  He wrote this essay in conjunction with his project for Dr. Elena Jackson Albarran’s Fall 2016 HST/LAS capstone on children in Latin America.